Images Of God

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 فِيۡهِ​ؕ قُلۡ قِتَالٌ فِيۡهِ كَبِيۡرٌ ​ؕ وَصَدٌّ عَنۡ سَبِيۡلِ اللّٰهِ وَ کُفۡرٌ ۢ بِهٖ وَالۡمَسۡجِدِ الۡحَـرَامِ وَاِخۡرَاجُ اَهۡلِهٖ مِنۡهُ اَكۡبَرُ عِنۡدَ اللّٰهِ ​​ۚ وَالۡفِتۡنَةُ اَکۡبَرُ مِنَ الۡقَتۡلِ​ؕ 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 النَّارِ​​ۚ 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
dwell forever.

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’:

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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:

Will be removed on request

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.

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12 thoughts on “Images Of God

  1. this is not a very flattering pic of our Creator. to me looks like it was taken from someone sitting in a nursing home, with the possible onset of dementia. i think our Creator can take on any form which He feels is appropriate. some people see him as a wise old man, who sits on the throne, with baby Angels surrounding Him, singing his virtues. ie. “Holy Holy is the Lord” is their chant. this may all be true at times. i think God is mostly too busy to sit complacently on His throne. He works with us, lives with us. One can never know what form He has taken at any given time. for me personally, sometimes i think i can see the Creator in the clouds quite often, i feel His Holy presence sometimes. (or i am wishing that this is what i can feel). the Creator and the Angels have no need of a physical body. i think that They can choose to have a physical presence or they can choose to be a purely Spiritual light-filled energy. such are my thoughts and feelings on this topic. each person will have their own conceptions, if they meditate on these things as i often have done.

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    1. Well in the series it’s not really God but an impostor because God has gone missing. I like the idea of God being too busy for that to be accurate too. I would definitely say I feel God’s presence sometimes and in fact probably most believers would say that. In fact I’d even go so far as to say that there are certain churches where you can feel God’s presence and others where God is palpably absent.

      Thanks for your thoughts, which are, well, thought-provoking 🙂 !

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  2. A light critique.

    God as female seems wholly appropriate based on current notions of what constitutes feminine attributes such as nurturing, protecting, life giving, and the laying out of examples to follow when conditions are adverse. “Current notions”, that is, because the ancient role of God as lawgiver, judge (one job, smiting enemies), and worshipful master portrays God as having masculine attribute such a power, ability to shift into and out of the realm, and strength.

    Idolatry and the faiths. Abram saw his wife Sarai as a type of idol that would protect him; one could, by extension expect that Sarai engaged in idolatry herself being from that culture (fertility gods, maybe?). Through a series of misadventures, Abraham and Sarah came to discard the functions of idols as questionable to, and later as an abomination to, his true God. It is pretty clear that there continued about him a thriving society replete with all sorts of gods of hearth, home, and hillsides.

    Obviously, Christianity kept to the pedestrian notion of God as incapable of being deeply hurt by misrepresentation (another feminine attribute? maybe) and that faith departed from the more stoic jewish and islamic tenants that view images of God as abhorrent. Despite our many generations, we’re only separated from the common idolaters of the time of Genesis by 150 or so generations, and from the year of our Lord by less than 100.

    By rights, Christianity has the lesser claim to intimate knowledge of the mind of God.

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    1. For me, a creator God would logically more or less have to be female if She’s to be attributed any gender, because she bears and gives birth to the creation. I also think there’s a sense in which the Universe is female, which is for the other blog.

      Reading between the lines, it looks like Judaism as we know it is descended from a religion with belief in a variety of deities, which later came to regard one of them as more important than the others and eventually as the only real deity. I think of that process as very like the way science progresses towards unifying concepts, so initially electricity and magnetism are seen as separate, then two aspects of the same thing and then that is extended to cover all forces of nature. That would be progressive revelation again. We learn more about God as time goes by. However, there’s also the idea that monotheism is the first belief system and it later becomes corrupted by adding other deities, which apparently is how the Muslims think about it.

      I don’t think it’s that God can be hurt so much as that there shouldn’t be conceptual barriers between us and God.

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      1. i prefer to think of God as masculine, because i need a father figure. but i think that the Creator is both male and female, in perfect never-ending manifestations. so both Father and Mother. probably God can divide into 2 and become both at the same time, or one or the other. as humans, we have very limited capacities and understanding. which is quite annoying really. perhaps once i am dead and a spirit, i will understand it all a lot better. i think as humans we are like rats running around on a wheel we want to figure it all out but all we do is run around in circles. we are limited by our grey matter (our brains).

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  3. i didn’t realise this was from a movie or such thing. i don’t like movies much, they tend to disturb me. God feels absent to me too, most of the time. so i can understand atheists and agnostics. it is quite a rare and precious thing to feel the presence of the Divine in your life. it doesn’t happen every day. in fact, it doesn’t happen very often at all. but when you thirst for something and seek it out, it will come to you.

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    1. The reason it’s from a TV series (actually) is that the series was trying to come up with a widely recognised representation of God and did quite well, so it works as a picture of God that’s in a lot of people’s minds. Otherwise it probably would’ve had to have been a cartoon or something, which didn’t seem right. Of course if I could actually draw it’d be another matter.

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    2. Oh, and also, yes, in a way everyone is agnostic because we don’t know, or at least so most people would claim on either side. But it is possible, and this bothers me because I’m not sure what to do with the thought, that God, being capable of anything, could create certain knowledge in the mind. Then again maybe God chooses not to do that.

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      1. just like i don’t want to control your mind and make you think exactly how i think. of course God wants us to think independently and stand on our own 2 feet.

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    3. TV show “Preacher”. I don’t follow it now because I cut the cable, but the rough outline is, God took a vacation and lent Genesis power to a con-man who’d made his living as a preacher. The preacher and his friends, a vampire and their common girlfriend, are on a quest to locate God, who is served by an benevolent but absolutely evil organization which is also trying to find him but to restore the earthly kingdom to God’s true son, who they believe resides in the person of a talented young man.

      Based on a graphic novel, there are modern evils but representations of the holy see and crusaders that take me back to Robbins’ “Another Roadside Attraction”

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  4. Paul Christy, i see God as evolving with us. the God of Abraham and Sarah, was their God. today we have our God, who is the same God, but who has evolved with the times. He is not a stagnant non- changing being. but in those days, the water and air were cleaner, the food was purer, so they had a big advantage in being close to the Divine. i will agree with that.

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