What images come to mind when you think of God?
Over the years, reflecting on scripture and the cosmos, Christians have described God in different ways. When we think of God, we cannot help but think of something. Philosopher Peter Rollins considers four views of God:
- God as Superbeing – God exists as a more powerful being; God is a more powerful version of ourselves
- God as Hyperbeing – God cannot be conceptualized; God is “that than which nothing greater can be named”; God is bigger than anything we can say about God
- Ground of Being – God is the ground from which everything arises; we cannot speak of God (which I suppose separates this from #2); when we discover something that lifts us up and gives us meaning, that is Ground of Being.
- God as event – God is the name we give to that which moves us to love; there is gravity in the world (think natural law) but every now and then grace pokes through; the divine is seen in real liberation and love.
That is a bit heady, which is okay because I think most Christians hover between 1 and 2 (at least, most Christians I meet in campus ministry). On that note, many atheists also revolve between 1 and 2. If you’ve every heard someone say “I believe in just one god less than you” they are defining God as that sort of Superbeing.
When we turn to the Bible, we can find both 1 and 2, sometimes in the same passage.
Read Psalm 11
Here is part of it:
The Lord is in his holy temple;
the Lord is on his heavenly throne.
He observes everyone on earth;
his eyes examine them.
5 The Lord examines the righteous,
but the wicked, those who love violence,
he hates with a passion.
6 On the wicked he will rain
fiery coals and burning sulfur;
a scorching wind will be their lot.
The image of God seen here is a super-being sitting in a temple somewhere up high in the sky. This was written thousands of years ago when it was common to simply view heaven as up (and hell, or the underworld, as down). But we live in a world where scientists have sent rockets into space and we know there is nothing “up” there beyond just more space. Further, the Lord seen here hates people and will rain fire upon them, not much different from Zeus in Greek mythology. So it seems apparent that we need to take this somewhat metaphorically or symbolically (though it begs the question, how did the original readers see it?).
This seems to reflect that Superbeing idea of God. When we come to other Psalms, Isaiah 40-66, the end of Job, we see a different understanding of God, God as beyond our understanding, that points us to #2 above.
I share this because: does it matter? Who cares what images come to mind when we think about God?
I think it matters. A lot. What we think of when we think of God matters. If God is just a powerful guy, like Superman, up in space who shows up to smite our enemies, this will affect how we relate to enemies, and the world at large. If God mostly just hates who we hate and will smite them…how should we live? Throughout history, every tribe and nation has believed in gods who lead them to war, destroy and defeat their enemies. The risk of merely viewing God as a superbeing is that God becomes a tribal deity supporting our crusades, wars, etc.
If God is an Infinite which we recognize we can only partially describe, this will affect how we relate to our enemies too. It will remind us when speaking of God we are speaking of ideas beyond our full understanding. It will remind us that while God possesses what we might call objective truth, God even is Truth itself, we humans only possess limited knowledge. I think this pushes us towards more humility.
Further, the Christian view that God became human takes on a deeper beauty when it is not just a god like Hercules or Zeus, but the one infinite incomprehensible being condescending to take on flesh. But this revelation in Jesus does not mean we now have perfect understanding. God did not become human to give us more information (though I do think we get more information). God became human to show us how to live. Jesus demonstrates that God is much more concerned with how we live than what floats around in our heads.
Psalm 11 ends:
For the Lord is righteous,
he loves justice;
the upright will see his face
How do you imagine God? What difference does it make if you would view God differently?
What is more important to know about God as we seek to love God and others?