Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Are Our Images of God Growing?
Losing your first baby tooth can be very traumatic
until you learn that this loss is nature's sign that adult teeth
will soon appear. Losing a childhood image of God (for example,
the viewpoint that an all-powerful God would never let anything
bad happen to me) can be much more painful than losing that first
baby tooth. Although adult teeth grow in without any conscious
help from us, more mature images of God do not automatically replace
those which we must rethink or rephrase because of our religious
education and life experiences.
Childhood images of God reflect a childhood faith.
Fair enough; we all have to start somewhere. An adult faith, however,
requires more adult images of God, that is, new mental pictures
which can help adults better understand a God never fully captured
in human language. Childhood images of God as judge and father
can be complemented by other biblical images of God, such as those
portraying God as potter and mother.
Childhood images of God are not automatically upgraded
to adult images. Childhood images of God may need to grow if we
are to have a vibrant, adult faith. Often a childhood image combines
something true (God is all-powerful) with a mistaken conclusion
(God will never let anything bad happen to me). If we fail to
see how our childhood images of God are incomplete, we risk stunting
our growth toward an adult faith.
What image of God do I carry?
The need to grow in one's images of
God became very obvious to me the day I heard the confession of
a woman who asked pardon for the miscarriage she had suffered 50
years before. She was probably at least 70 years old (she was behind
the screen), and after she had recounted the circumstances of the
miscarriage, which was not due to any negligence on her part, I
tried to assure her that she had committed no sin and that God not
only perfectly understood her situation but even more so wanted
her to forgive herself. I suspect she accepted that intellectually,
but I do not know if that changed anything for her emotionally.
God knows how many times she had already asked forgiveness for that
I remember thinking to myself, "What
kind of a God has she been worshiping all these years? What kind
of baggage from that tragedy has she possibly been carrying for
the last half century? Has anyone tried to help her develop more
adult images of God? How many other people have been carrying similar
baggage arising from personal suffering? What images of God am I
I was reminded of that woman's confession
when I saw Roland Joffe's movie The Mission in which Mendoza,
the repentant slave trader (Robert DeNiro), accompanies Father Gabriel
(Jeremy Irons) and several other Jesuits up the steep slopes alongside
the Iguazu Falls. Mendoza drags behind him a net containing the
armor which symbolizes the life he has left behind, a life where
he killed his own brother in a lovers' triangle. The former slave
trader has already confessed his sin and now lugs this armor for
miles as a penance.
When the other Jesuits urge Father Gabriel
to end the penance, he replies that the time is not yet ripe. Finally,
at the top of the falls, the Guarini Indians, whom Mendoza had once
hunted, are waiting to welcome the Jesuits. Tension arises when
they see Mendoza, but finally a young boy steps forward with a machete,
pauses and then cuts the rope; the net with the armor falls back
into the river. Mendoza feels a tremendous sense of relief and is
generously welcomed by the Indians. The entire sequence conveys
a sense of baptismal cleansing and reconciliation. God's forgiveness
has been complemented by self-forgiveness and reconciliation with
Often you and I drag behind us images
of Godand related images of ourselves and otherswhich
are increasingly heavy. We refuse to leave them behind, however,
because we suspect that more mature images might require an even
greater conversion on our part. Unlike the movie where someone else
could decide that Mendoza did not have to drag that burden any longer,
only we can decide to quit carrying oppressive images of God and
at the same time accept new, interrelated images of God, self and
others. God had already forgiven Mendoza's sin but would not force
the repentant slave trader to accept more mature, interconnecting
images of God, himself and others.
Images of God can grow as we do
Most of us gravitate toward two or three images of
God as long as they help us make sense of life around us, but
those images are not necessarily the whole truth about God. For
example, God is a loving creator who may not answer my selfish
prayers (like winning the lottery), but God will certainly answer
my prayers if it's more serious (like someone's life), or so I
think. But what happens to that image of God when I pray for a
very sick person who then dies?
If I have a single image of God and this is decisively
contradicted by a new and painful experience in my life (God will
always protect me, but last week I was beaten and robbed), in
a sense, I have the same options regarding my images of God as
if I outgrow a pair of shoes: (1) I can continue to wear the same
shoes and complain that they do not fit (why is this good God
punishing me?); (2) I can quit wearing shoes altogether (become
an atheist or an agnostic); or (3) I can find shoes that fit (find
images which do justice to all of God's self-revelation and to
all of life as I have experienced it).
A Christian who chooses the third option must reexamine
the Scriptures and reconsider the lives of holy Christians to
see if he or she has missed any key information. In fact, this
third option is a commitment to continual growth regarding the
person's images of God.
A family comparison
Imagine that when you were five years old someone
asked you to describe your parents. Perhaps you would have answered
(or did!) that your mother was very loving (the world's best cook!),
your father was very strong (more so than your friend's father)
and that together your parents took very good care of you. Now
imagine that at age 30 you were asked the same question. Would
you simply repeat your earlier answers? Hardly. Although you might
use many of the same words (strength, love, care), they would
have a deeper meaning.
Which description of your parents would be the correct
onethe one you gave at age five or at age 30? Is it possible
that they are both correct and are simply reflections of your
growing ability to appreciate your parents? It would be a mistake
either to disregard the five-year-old's description of his or
her parents or, on the other hand, to accept it as the last word.
Important discoveries (positive and negative) await everyone willing
to see the "whole picture" about another person.
It is, of course, possible to remain frozen in our
earliest impressions of our parents. As a result we may idealize
them, never allowing them to become real people with their own
difficulties and "shadows," or we may fail to see good qualities
we didn't value properly when we were children. If we can act
this way with our own parents, why should we be surprised to find
that our childhood images of God are insufficient? Is God insulted
that we did not understand everything correctly from childhood?
Or does God regret, rather, that as adults we are content to rely
exclusively on those childhood images?
We would do well therefore to seek deeper images of
God which are in better harmony with our adult faith and experience.
"Wait a minute," you may be saying. "That's cheating.
You can't construct an image of God to explain all your problems
or disappointments in life. You're making God in your own imagerather
than being made in God's image." Not at all. God's self-revelation
in the Scriptures comes to us through a great variety of images.
The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the prophets and
the psalmists, the God of Mary Magdalene, Martha and the Samaritan
woman at the well, the loving God revealed in Jesus' death on
the crossthis God always surpasses our words and images.
If my images of God have been quite satisfactory for
a long time but are now called into question by my present experience
(If God is good, why is this or that disaster happening to me?),
why should I refuse to consider that my images of God may be too
confiningfor me and for God?
Because God's self-revelation is given in the Hebrew
Scriptures and in the New Testament, followers of Jesus must turn
first to those sources for their images of God.
Images of God in the Hebrew Scriptures
What do you immediately think of when someone mentions
the "Old Testament God"? Probably a stern God, very concerned
with people keeping the divine rules, a God characterized by thunder
and lightning on Mt. Sinai. Perhaps you remember the God who turned
Lot's wife into a pillar of salt for looking back at Sodom and
Gomorrah or the God who told Abraham to sacrifice his only son
Isaac and then stopped Abraham in the nick of time.
But what about the God who walked in the Garden of
Eden during the cool of the evening (Genesis 3), the God who compares
the nation Israel to an adulterous wife whom God still loves passionately
(Hosea 23) orreversing the gender imagerythe
God who has more tenderness toward Israel than a mother has "for
the child of her womb" (Isaiah 49:15)? What about the merciful
God whom the prophet Jonah criticized after the people of Nineveh
converted, much to Jonah's surprise and disgust? What about the
God who wants to share the divine wisdom with every man, woman
and child willing to prize that wisdom more than silver and gold
Many Christians are so unfamiliar with the Hebrew
Scriptures that they readily believe that all its images of God
are angry and legalistic. The truth, however, is more complicated.
All the inspired writers wrote about the same God, but not all
of them had the same images of God. Just as children can grow
toward more truthful images about their parents, so we can grow
toward more adult images of God. Why should we accept from the
Hebrew Scriptures only the stern images and discard all the others?
Images of God in the New Testament
Christians often have the opposite problem with images
of God in the New Testament. We can fondly remember the parables
of the Good Shepherd (John 10) or the Prodigal Son (Luke 15),
while forgetting that Jesus' parable about the Last Judgment (Matthew
25) presents us with the tough challenge to serve Christ in the
needs of our brothers and sisters.
Christians need to remember Jesus' story about the
Pharisee praying in the Temple ("O God, I thank you that I am
not like the rest of humanity...") while the tax collector at
the back simply struck his breast and said "O God, be merciful
to me, a sinner" (Luke 18). Jesus' description of the Pharisee
is as stern and uncompromising as his view of the tax collector
is compassionate. The common image of a loving and generous New
Testament God should not erase the need for ongoing conversion
to the Lord's ways.
God is neither an ogre in the Hebrew Scriptures nor
an indulgent grandfather in the New Testament. The Bible contains
varied images of God because God inspired diverse images.
Growing with life
The wonderful variety of images of God in the Hebrew
and Christian Scriptures arises partly from the dissatisfaction
of several biblical authors with the conventional images of God
presented to them. If we could put all the biblical writers into
one huge room, we could expect to hear some very lively debates
about the best images for describing God.
Divine inspiration works with the human maturing process
rather than replacing it. Whoever wrote the Book of Job certainly
knew human suffering at very close range; the writer's persona!
crisis did not stifle God's self-revelation. The Gospel writers
and the faith communities for whom they wrote knew painful challenges
to faith and yet worked through them.
The idea of God serenely guiding the hand of the inspired
writers should be replaced by that of God helping the inspired
writer to face his or her challenges to faith and to record a
message needed for future believers. Truthful images of God, a
healthy image of oneself, an honest image of otherswe do
not deepen these after the crises of daily life have passed
but rather while we handle those crises in a faith-filled
Sometimes our faith fails to grow at a time of wrenching
loss (miscarriage, murder of a child or news of a terminal illness)
precisely because we refuse to question our previously secure
images of God and open ourselves to fuller understanding. We may
fear that we will "lose our faith" if we do so. Such a refusal,
however, may keep a person's faith frozen in images capable of
nourishing only a childhood faith.
Developing adult images of God
Part of our difficulty in adjusting our images of
God is that we must simultaneously adjust our self-image and the
way we see other people. Whether we like it or not, our images
of God, self and others are all tied together. Whatever lenses
a person uses to see God are the same lenses for seeing oneself
Just as children sometimes have difficulty leaving
behind early images of their parents in favor of gradually more
adult images, so believers often find it hard to accept the rich
variety of scriptural images which can nourish an adult faith
in God. Here changing the way I look at God is neither automatically
progress nor betrayal; it should be evaluated in the light of
the Scriptures and the Church's ongoing prayer and meditation
on their meaning.
Is God male? One potential area for growth
in our understanding of God relates to the tendency to use exclusively
masculine language when we talk about God. Today that practice
is being challenged by believers who point out that both the Hebrew
Scriptures and the New Testament apply traditionally "feminine"
characteristics to God. In his 1988 apostolic letter On the
Dignity and Vocation of Women, Pope John Paul II noted that
the Bible applies both "masculine" and "feminine" qualities to
God. "We find in these passages an indirect confirmation of the
truth that both man and woman were created in the image and likeness
of God" (#8).
In his earlier apostolic letter Rich in Mercy,
the pope pointed out that the Hebrew Scriptures use two different
words to describe God as merciful. One of those words, rahmimoften
translated as "compassion"comes from rehem, the Hebrew
word for "womb." Thus, whenever we speak of God as compassionate,
we are applying a characteristic which in Hebrew was seen as predominantly
feminine. In his Angelus address on September 10, 1978, Pope John
Paul I said, "God is our father; even more he is our mother."
Is God "Western"? Another possibility for growth
is our rising above the tendency to make God the flag-bearer of
the particular culture in which we were raised. As the U.S. bishops
noted in their 1986 pastoral statement "To the Ends of the Earth,"
at times in the past "missionaries brought not only the strengths
but also some of the weaknesses of Western civilization" (#8).
The understanding of God brought by the European missionaries
was often very Westernthough the religious art and popular
devotions of the native peoples attempted to bridge the gap. No
one culture has a monopoly on how to represent God. In the past,
missionaries were sometimes too quick to stamp outrather
than study with respectthe values and perceptions about
creation and its Maker held by the native culture. As the bishops
say, "The ground in which we are called to plant the Gospel is
holy ground, for before our arrival God has already visited the
people he knows and loves" (#32).
Images fall short
Developing adult images of God can be challenging,
enriching and scary. Shortly after John Henry Newman retired to
Littlemore (near Oxford, England) to reconsider his position in
the Church of England, he wrote, "In a higher world it is otherwise,
but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have
Men and women become adults spiritually not with the
simple passing of years but rather when they begin to recognize
how much their images of God fall short of the reality and how
much God stretches us to respect all men and women created in
the divine image (Genesis 1:26-27). When we truly convert, we
surrender our idols and accept life on God's terms. Only then
can our images develop until we see God face-to-face, so to speak,
at the eternal banquet.
(Parts of this Catholic Update are excerpted
from Naming Your God: The Search for Mature Images, Pat
McCloskey, O.F.M., copyright 1991, Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame,
IN 46556. Used with permission.)