One of the most insisted-upon precepts of the Abrahamic faiths is that we’re not supposed to have images of God because that may lead us to worship a created thing or person rather than the Creator. In the Qur’an, Surah Al-Baqarah (The Cow, second surah of the Qur’an) verse 217 reads:
يَسۡـئَلُوۡنَكَ عَنِ الشَّهۡرِ الۡحَـرَامِ قِتَالٍ فِيۡهِؕ قُلۡ قِتَالٌ فِيۡهِ كَبِيۡرٌ ؕ وَصَدٌّ عَنۡ سَبِيۡلِ اللّٰهِ وَ کُفۡرٌ ۢ بِهٖ وَالۡمَسۡجِدِ الۡحَـرَامِ وَاِخۡرَاجُ اَهۡلِهٖ مِنۡهُ اَكۡبَرُ عِنۡدَ اللّٰهِ ۚ وَالۡفِتۡنَةُ اَکۡبَرُ مِنَ الۡقَتۡلِؕ وَلَا يَزَالُوۡنَ يُقَاتِلُوۡنَكُمۡ حَتّٰى يَرُدُّوۡكُمۡ عَنۡ دِيۡـنِکُمۡ اِنِ اسۡتَطَاعُوۡا ؕ وَمَنۡ يَّرۡتَدِدۡ مِنۡكُمۡ عَنۡ دِيۡـنِهٖ فَيَمُتۡ وَهُوَ کَافِرٌ فَاُولٰٓـئِكَ حَبِطَتۡ اَعۡمَالُهُمۡ فِى الدُّنۡيَا وَالۡاٰخِرَةِ ۚ وَاُولٰٓـئِكَ اَصۡحٰبُ النَّارِۚ هُمۡ فِيۡهَا خٰلِدُوۡن
They will question thee concerning the holy
month, and fighting in it. Say: ´Fighting in it
is a heinous thing, but to bar from God´s
way, and disbelief in Him, and the Holy
Mosque, and to expel its people from it —
that is more heinous in God´s sight; and
persecution is more heinous than slaying.´
They will not cease to fight with you, till they
turn you from your religion, if they are able;
and whosoever of you turns from his religion,
and dies disbelieving — their works have
failed in this world and the next; those are the
inhabitants of the Fire; therein they shall
The highlighted phrase is often “translated” as “idolatry is worse than carnage”. How it got from the Arabic to these two apparently very different English interpretations may serve to illustrate why it’s said that the Qur’an can never really be translated, and certainly early English “translations” of the book are deliberately unsympathetic to the text, because the aim is often not to present a faithful translation but to denigrate the book and the whole of Islam. The word “qur’an” means something like “recite”, as it’s meant to be read aloud, so maybe I should’ve linked to that instead. However, this in any case demonstrates the problem with taking something away from an original version – you end up representing it in your own way and it ceases to be, as it were, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, although some people would argue that it’s not the truth anyway.
The fact remains that we are not supposed to worship graven images of any kind, and certainly not God’s. Some people would take this further, and in fact this is done in Islamic theology where God is described as being unlike any created thing, which is reminiscent of the Dao (道), since as the Dao De Jing has it, “The Dao that can be expressed is not the eternal Dao”, and “painfully giving it a name, I call it great”. This is taken still further by the Sea Of Faith movement, which views adherence to Scripture itself as a form of idolatry, meaning that Christians must reject the Bible. I wouldn’t go that far of course, and in fact although interpretations of the Bible have done a colossal amount of damage, to reject it completely and still call yourself Christian seems a bit pointless.
It does make sense to me, though, not to attach what I might think about God to my image of God, which is one reason why I try not to use pronouns to refer to God, or rather, in a sense, to use “God” as a pronoun, because she/it/he/they doesn’t cover the situation. God is genderless because gender is a created thing, whoever may have created it. Along these lines, it might seem equally absurd to call God “Father”, but I don’t see it that way, although God is equally our Mother, which is why God is referred to as “the many-breasted one” in the Bible (though again not in translation). Gender, though, is not for this blog.
Many people find it very hard to call God Father because of their own relationships with their fathers, and others find it absurd because they see God as the Creator and sustainer of the Cosmos, i.e. the mother who gave birth to the Universe and suckles it. I don’t actually find it that hard, although this is not because of my relationship with my earthly father. It’s more that I was used to calling God Father and my other father daddy or dad so early on that I’ve never seen the two as similar in an emotional way. Also, during an early atheist phase, when I found it necessary to invent God to deal with separation anxiety, I imagined her as a translucent lilac manta ray-like spitiy who enveloped and protected me in her wings and called her Mother Nature. I imagine, in fact, that it’s our developmental psychological history which leads us to invent God in order to deal with separation from our parents, and as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the psychogenetic fallacy means that that in no way invalidates the existence of God, merely provides an explanation for our belief in God.
It was therefore interesting that when I posted this image on my FB wall:
…which is problematic of course, but let’s not go there right now, it led to argument. This is a very common image of Jesus, at least in Roman Catholic and Reformed churches, and is said to be based on Sol Invictus, the Roman sun god, which is also where the halo is said to be from. There are other images of Jesus, such as this one:
This is supposed to be closer to how Jesus actually looked although I personally have a problem with the idea of short hair because I see Jesus as having dreadlocks and it seems unlikely that haircuts were a luxury whereof He availed himself. It’s also dissimilar to the haircut recommended in the Torah. That said, the complexion is probably close. Another problem with this image, to my mind, is the expression, which to my mind is probably closer to the first image, and in fact the expression is probably more important than the countenance. It’s not clear though even whether the expression is “right”.
We probably all have our own image of Jesus, even if we don’t regard Him as a historical figure. In fact, if we don’t we probably have more freedom to imagine Him as we want although I expect that those who don’t may have a more mainstream picture than those who do. What the conversation on FB said to me is that we don’t benefit from an image, because it leads to disagreement and division between Christians, something which FB also does without any help at all. But as soon as we start disagreeing on images of Jesus, we’re divided.
Moreover, it was found in the nineteenth century that if people tried to discover the “Historical Jesus”, they tended to find that they made Him in their image, that is, they tended to produce a biography of a person whose values were the same as theirs. Hence a liberal would end up describing a liberal Jesus and a conservative a conservative Jesus. This suggests that the nature of the gospel texts, or at least our response to them in a culture which has been substantially shaped by them, or more broadly by the whole of the canonical Bible, is such that we find it hard to read them dispassionately, and this would apply as much to anti-theist atheists as evangelical Biblically literalist Protestants. Nonetheless, it’s sometimes important to step out of one’s comfort zone and even make life hard on oneself by admitting that because one is merely human, one can be wrong about things, and as such it doesn’t follow that one should reject the bits one happens to find inconvenient in the Bible.
The issue of the historical Jesus is particularly emphasised by certain anti-theist metaphysically naturalistic scientifically realist atheists (often known simply as “atheists”) who claim that he never existed. Any Christian who believes in something like substitutionary atonement – the idea that Christ had to die instead of us for our sins – needs there to be a historical Jesus, but there are other possibilities, even for a Christian. Another view of Christ is that He’s a good moral exemplar, that is, a role model, and that doesn’t actually require Him ever to have existed. I personally do believe that Jesus is a real historical character, and someone who believes in substitutionary atonement can also accept “moral influence”, as the above view is known. On the whole among academics who specialise in the field, by which I mean ancient history rather than theologians, and also secular academics, the belief has long been that the balance of probabilities is that Jesus did exist, although what he was beyond a religious teacher in first century Judaea is another matter. The general consensus is that he was baptised by John The Baptist, tried under Pontius Pilate and was crucified. There is, however, a strong tendency for people to have axes to grind on either side.
Rather than go into what I personally believe, because obviously I would have agenda in this area, I would prefer to note that Leicester Secular Society’s Hall has a bust of Jesus along with four others: Socrates, Voltaire, Robert Owen and Thomas Paine. There’s an article on Jesus as a secular hero on their site here. The basic idea is that the spirit of Christianity, i.e. red letter Christianity, could be salvaged from its supernatural elements and still be valid. Evangelicals would probably say that in order to follow the “teachings of Jesus” as they would see it, it’s necessary to commit to Christ because ordinary human beings (i.e. everyone except Jesus) could never manage to live up to them without help, and therefore that you can’t really divorce the idea of following a Christian lifestyle from devotion to the unique God/Man. Red letter Christianity, incidentally, is just following what Jesus said rather than paying attention to the whole Bible, and it may be that there’s a lot of validity in that because it’s been said that Paul turned the religion of Jesus into the religion about Him. However, I personally believe in an open canon – the content of the Bible is not the only divinely inspired work and the revelation continues to this day and beyond. Progressive revelation is not a particularly heretical view within Christianity. Just as an aside, I also have serious doubts Socrates really existed. Whereas there may have been a person called Σωκρᾰ́της, I think all of what Plato attributes to him is merely his own material surfing on the earlier figure’s ethos. Socrates was ugly, philosophical, lived in Athens and died by drinking hemlock. This is about as much as is known about Jesus.
Then of course there’s God the Father. For our sins, probably, we in the West have ended up with a high god, who long again became the only deity, to whom the male gender is attributed. The image we have of Him is of an old man with long white hair and a beard, as depicted wonderfully accurately in ‘Preacher’:
This image of God is based on Zeus, the Greek high god and womaniser with the thunderbolts, throne and stuff. Although it’s hard to escape this view of god or to ignore the apparent influence on the idea of Christ as the son of God, since he was known to conceive children with mortals, this is not God. This is nothing like God in fact, because God is not male, God the Father has no human form.
Having said that, it’s important sometimes to break one’s preconceptions and, simply as an exercise, to try to imagine a very different image of God, always bearing in mind that being an image it’s not to be worshipped, and also to acknowledge that the message is a communication between God and the human being, since God will use whatever medium is necessary to communicate. Consequently, I have deliberately attempted to use the image of God used in the comedy film ‘Dogma’ to subvert the obstinate image of God shown above which is a legacy from the patriarchal culture of Ancient Greece, thus:
I am of course one hundred percent aware that this image of God, namely Alanis Morissette of ironic song fame (she’s the one on the left), is just as false as the one from ‘Preacher’, although with less of a pedigree. But it is even so helpful to think of God, the many-breasted one who gathers her children under her as a mother hen gathers her chicks, as not just female but a woman, and a woman, moreover, who cannot be sexually objectified, because She has all the power and will use it lovingly and benevolently. Since Jesus tells us to see God in everyone, if we see God as male, whereas it may still be extremely useful, for example, to see God in a homeless man (which is after all what Jesus was) or a male leader of a country, and I have to admit it’s a lot easier for me to see God in the bearded shaggy rough sleeper outside Sainsbury’s here in Loughborough than in Donald Trump, although Christ nonetheless commands that I also do the latter, if we have a male image of God, we may find it harder to see Her in women that we meet, for example, in the rough sleeper outside the cinema, who experiences period poverty, or Theresa May. It also means that Mary’s conception of Christ is the result of lesbian sex as much as heterosexual. There is a problem, however, with me seeing God as female, apart from the fact that She isn’t, which is that since I’m female myself there’s the danger of arrogance, and I need to be humble before God. Nevertheless I think it’s healthy for me to see God in women, though not to the detriment of men.
To conclude, then, although we’re on shaky ground when we try to project an image onto God and it tends to be divisive, it can be a useful exercise to do so, provided we can easily peel it off once we’re done, and one of the dangers of having an image of God is that it may be too comfortable for us, suit us rather too well and be a source of division with other theists. Finally, in a sense the logical conclusion of all this may even be theological non-cognitivism, also known as ignosticism, which I’ve gone into elsewhere on this blog but which is roughly the position that religious language is meaningless, a position which can be held by religious and non-religious people alike. But that’s a very involved issue which I won’t go into here.