Have you ever noticed that when people talk about God we tend to look toward the sky? Why do we do that? Traditional language about God refers to a “He.” Notions of “God the Father” evoke the image of a very ancient and venerable human man. Artists have typically depicted God as an aged man with white beard and hearty body. Christians profess that God’s “son” – another man – seems also to live above us, somewhere on high. These notions about God speak about God’s “transcendence,” which is the word we use to describe the way in which God is “higher” or “above” our own state. When we ask a God like that for help, what are we expecting? Are we expecting somebody, a person whom we would recognize if we met him, to intervene in our lives? Is this intervention to take place in plain sight, or behind the scenes?
If any of us were given the opportunity to make a movie, we would probably use images from our own experience to portray what we wanted to depict as the characters, places and events in our film. If we handed the camera to another person and asked them to film something that told a story about poverty, or a story about love, they would do the same thing. They would choose something from their experience and then set it up as their way of telling the story. Is it possible that we do the same thing with God? There are both positive and negative consequences that result from following that approach to knowing and speaking about God.
The positive consequence is that we come to realize that we know God from within our human experience. We look back on places, things, people and events and we use those to talk about who God is, what God is like, and when and where God appears to be present and acting. Since we are reaching into our very own lives to speak about God, it means that we recognize that God is not some distant being far away from us in an alien reality. It means that we recognize that God is among us in ways that we can talk about and not interfering in our lives through remote control.
The problem or the negative consequence of speaking of God in this way is that it is easy to fall into the trap of reducing God to a thing that can be fully described and expressed by us in those words we use to talk about God. Remember, we choose those words from our own experience. So, when we reduce God to being literally only what we name God, we create God in our own images. In the Christian tradition we have always referred to that as the sin of idolatry. The sin of idolatry is the sin of worshipping what we ourselves have created.
There are many people today who believe that there is nothing to religion except for this form of idolatry. I believe we need to listen to those voices. They believe that people project their own wishes and desires onto an object (like a movie screen) and then call that object God. While they are correct in saying that this happens, and even that it happens very often, it is incorrect to say that everyone who speaks about God is engaging in this form of idolatry.
Ironically, people who reject any reference to God as valid are caught in the same trap as the people who create an image of God which they use as a literal definition of God. Both groups are thinking of God only in the literal sense. One of them thinks God is literally a man – although a kind of “superman” – and they accept this as something that it is necessary to believe as true. The other thinks of God as literally a superman, and they reject this as something that it is necessary to believe as false.
Is there some way to get beyond this conflict? There is a way, but it requires us to first of all become humble before God. How can that happen? It happens when we open ourselves to encounter with the real presence of God. Throughout the ages, people have found ways to speak of this encounter, but part of their expression is always an attempt to say that they are lost for words in trying to describe what happened. Have you ever met someone who really impressed you? Later, you try to tell someone else about that person and you find yourself saying, “I’m not really telling you this very well. Just wait until you meet her (or him) and you’ll see what I mean!”
The encounter with God is personal, unique, contextualized, and particular to each person. Every person is like a whole universe and when we meet another person, it will take us a lifetime to discover whatever makes that other person who they are. People are full of surprises because they are constantly showing us new ways that they can be themselves. Humility before God means recognizing that our knowledge of God is never complete. We are always waiting for God to come to us in surprising new ways. When that happens, we have to learn how to speak about God all over again. Humility is the antidote for idolatry.
What happens when we approach conversations about God with humility? For one thing, we aren’t quite so eager to deny other people’s ways of speaking about God. We recognize that there are as many ways to encounter God as there are people. Therefore there are many ways to speak about that encounter. To use our example of meeting another person, we can ask what happens when several people are acquainted with the same person and then find themselves in a conversation about that person. One of them might describe Beth as an artist. Another says that Beth is an avid basketball player. Yet another says that Beth really enjoys watching cartoons and reading comic books. Along comes Beth’s mother saying that Beth is always considerate but she is often messy. They are all talking about the same person, aren’t they? But they all have something very different to say.
Finding language about God that we can all agree on has been a constant struggle throughout history, and it’s especially difficult now when we are more and more familiar with different ways of speaking about God and the sacred around the world. In the past, the people of a certain geographical area might have more or less the same ways of speaking about God. Perhaps they were born and grew up in the same place, with the same people and just never encountered people who were different from themselves. In that case, they may not have questioned the God about whom they had been taught.
If God just becomes an “idea” and ceases to be a real presence that we encounter in our own reality, our world can become a battleground for religions. Each army fights on the side of its own idea of God against other armies who have different ideas of God. This would not happen if people had more humility before God and recognized that their understanding of God is limited. Instead of looking up at the sky, then, when we speak of God, it might be better if we looked each other in the eye. Maybe then we can talk about God as if we are talking about someone we both know.