Monday, I started a series on Things the Church Has Decided Not to Believe. I’m not going to recapitulate the entire introduction here; if you really want to find it, you can look up my post of July 28th. The big idea, however, is that knowing what we don’t believe — and why — can help us understand what we do believe — and why we believe it. So, here we go:
1) The church does not believe that God is an old white man with a long beard who spends his days sitting on a cloud. (We also do not believe that God is an old black man or an old brown man who sits on a cloud, but the white man is more prevalent in paintings.)
I was raised in Judaism, which prohibits all images of God. When I went to synagogue, the walls were covered with abstract patterns and the windows were blocks of colored light. The only images were on the Torah scrolls: little silver caps and shields with etchings of the Ten Commandments. So you can imagine my surprise over the years when, in Christian gatherings, person after person has told me that he or she has rejected the faith because he or she just can’t believe that God is an old white man.
It turns out that most of them had encountered this image at some point in Sunday school or in a children’s Bible. Once you start to look for it, it’s everywhere. Which begs the question: why?
Actually, this one is pretty obvious: Jesus called God “Daddy,” and the old man with the beard is the idealization of Fatherhood. The images are meant to suggest a kindly old man, wise with years, who gently and effectively governs his household (the earth) as the ideal Roman or Medieval or Victorian father governed his household. Because much of human history has been characterized by patriarchal forms of social organization, the Good Father became the image of order, calm, reason, and benevolence.
There’s more to it, of course. The specific details of the image actually come from the Book of Daniel, in which the prophet has a dream and sees “an Ancient of Days” who “took his throne, his clothing was white as snow and the air of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire….A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.” (Daniel 7:9-10) St. John of Patmos repeats this image in the first book of Revelation, with embellishments (1:13-16). So the white hair and white clothing and beard actually derive from Scripture.
If the image has a Biblical basis, how can I say that the Church does not believe it is true? Because the Bible provides more than one visual image of God, and they conflict with one another. All you need to do is read the image in Ezekiel (1:4-28) or the images in Jesus’ parables (shepherd, vine, door….) or the disembodied voice that address Moses and Elijah and Jeremiah and Haggai to understand that these image are gestures toward the ineffable, attempts to depict in terms accessible to human beings what is truly beyond our comprehension and our sight. They are like butterflies in our stomach: a metaphor that help us understand what is true, without, itself, being tangibly real.
What is true is that God is eternal (which, in our limited comprehension, we most easily understand as really, really old). What is true is that God is utterly good and is the giver of all that we need (a benevolence that many of us experienced most clearly in childhood — although some of us acutely did not). What is true is that God did not create the world a chaos, but imbued it with order and grace. What is true is that God is sovereign over all things, and that God is humble enough to hold a small child in God’s heart.
What is not true is that God is a man. God is neither male nor female, but the creator of all things. God is not old, in the way we usually think of it; God exists beyond time. God does not really sit on a cloud; we just think of it that way because we tend to think of heaven as being “above” us. (Jesus, by contrast, spoke of the Kingdom of God as being within us, and spoke in his prayer of things on Earth becoming so perfectly aligned with the good will of God that they become indistinguishable from the things of Heaven.)
The truth is that there is no image of God that can do more than gesture at God’s fullness of being. Right now, there is a fashion in jewelry: people are making pendants out of little clay tablets with images of the Buddha. It think that most of us who try to follow Jesus have something very much like those little tablets in our minds: we make our own images of Jesus or of God, and then we allow them to harden and take on a life of their own, using them to judge and reject all additional images of God until our image becomes a mental idol.
God loves to break those idols. God, who is living and active, who refuses to be confined to any one idea (no matter how good it is in itself), reaches into our lives and shakes us and turns us upside down until we let go of our idols and confront the reality of God as beyond all that we can understand. This process is painful and awful and depressing, and exhilarating and enlivening and fascinating, and it is how we grow.
But it is also true that images are of great usefulness, at least if we don’t let them ensnare us. When you think of God, what images do you find useful to you? Do you like God as Mother, as Spirit, as rushing-stream, as beam of light, as lamb, as Father, as an old man sitting on a cloud? If so, embrace that image — but hold it lightly. It will bring you toward the truth — but it will take you only partway there. In the end, it is only in the place beyond sight that we can see clearly the Author of Beauty, the Giver of Form, the Maker of All that Is.