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Are Our Images of God Growing?

by Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

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 supposed sin.

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 carrying around?"

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 others.

Often you and I drag behind us images of God—and related images of ourselves and others—which 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 one—the 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.

"That's cheating!"

"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 image—rather 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 cross—this 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 confining—for 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 2—3) or—reversing the gender imagery—the 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 (Wisdom 7)?

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 others—we do not deepen these after the crises of daily life have passed but rather while we handle those crises in a faith-filled way.

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 and others.

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, rahmim—often 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 Western—though 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 out—rather than study with respect—the 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 changed often."

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.)

Pat McCloskey, O.F.M., has served for several years as Director of Communications for the general curia of the Franciscans (O.F.M.) in Rome. Besides the above-mentioned book, he is the author of When You Are Angry With God (Paulist Press) and of numerous articles.


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