Images of God

As I mentioned the other day, I’m currently reading James Keenan’s Moral Wisdom, a book I really think is worth taking the time to read.

I’ve written and spoken a number of times about our image of God – what our image of God is can have an enormous impact on us.

Talking about how various images of God are useful, helping us approach God in prayer and in hope, Keenan sounds two cautions.

First, he observes that “we need to make sure that our image of God is not simply one image.” The danger of failing to allow other images into our prayers is that we “confine our understanding of God to a minimalist understanding.” That seems right to me – we know at one level that nothing we say to describe God can capture God completely. But the danger of a single image is that we can easily forget that it is an image and it becomes a definition of God.

Second, he suggests that as we get older “we should look for images that are competitive with one another.” Our understanding of Jesus is broadened, for example, if our image of Jesus carries both the Jesus who turns over tables in the temple and the Jesus who welcomes little children.

As I reflect back over my recent retreat experience, I can appreciate Keenan’s point. Several times during the retreat, the Jesus I needed to be with was the figure represented in a sculpture in the retreat house’s Sacred Heart chapel. A seated Jesus is portrayed with a child. The child is leaning his head against Jesus’ shoulder. One of Jesus’ hands is around the boy’s shoulder and the other holds his hand in his lap.

But at other times, I needed to be with a more challenging Jesus. The Jesus who invites Peter (and me) to walk to him on the water. The Jesus who says leave everything and come follow me. And the Jesus (who I spent a lot of time with) who hung from the cross at which I stood. All of these images contributed to who Jesus is to me and who I am with Jesus.

What are you images of God? Do you have more than one?


Visions of the Master

I am always delighted when I read or hear something that helps me to see a scripture passage in a new light. Especially when it is a Gospel passage I have prayed with or thought about a lot, I’m delighted when I hear a sermon that focuses it a bit differently than I’ve focused it before. That happened to me yesterday.

I attended Mass yesterday morning at St. Edward’s Catholic Church in Bloomington, where I have been giving a Monday morning series on prayers (the last session of which is this morning). Since there was an adult education program yesterday I wanted to attend, I attended the 9:30 there.

The Gospel passage yesterday morning was the parable of the talents in St. Matthew’s Gospel. It is a story we are all familiar with. The Master of the house gave different talents to each servant. (In the translation we heard at Mass yesterday, it was expressed as a number of silver coins.) The first two servants invested the talents wisely and made them grow. The Master was pleased and gave them more talents. The third servant hoarded his talents and did not use them, nor did he make them grow, so they were taken away from him by the angry Master.

I always speak of this parable when talking to people about getting in touch with their giftedness. We are each given a unique set of gifts from God so that we can use them to give greater glory to God; we aren’t given a gift to bury it and give it back in its pristine state to God. We are given our gifts to use them for the life of the world. Nothing wrong with that message.

But the priest suggested something that I had not considered before, and that is that the servants in the parable had very different images of their Master and that those images had an effect on their behavior. The parable reveals explicitly the image of the third servant: “Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter;so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground.” The other servants, the priest posited, rather than seeing the Master as harsh and judging, saw him as loving and forgiving. That gave them the freedom to do something creative with the talents they had been entrusted with.

People have many different images of God. Some of those images are less healthy than others. Some constrict and others give us the confidence and freedom to be all that God intended for us to become.

Note: For a different, but very powerful, take on today’s Gospel, go listen to this reflection by my friend and hero, Aidan Rooney, currently working in the Vincentian mission in Bolivia.

Image and Likeness of God of a Steadfast God

One of the fundamental messages of Christianity is the proclamation that the human person is made in the image and likeness of God. We know that “image and likeness” means something other than physical image and characteristics and there are different ways to talk about what it does mean.

The way I most commonly think about our being made in the image and likeness of God is to focus on the Trinitarian nature of God. Since God by definition lives in relation, our being made in God’s image and likeness implies that we exist as relational beings, which focuses on our interdependence.

In the course of writing the book I’m currently writing on my conversion from Catholicism to Buddhism and back to Catholicism, I’ve been rereading my journals from various periods. Yesterday afternoon I came across in my reading something that offers another way to think about the meaning of our creation in God’s image. I wrote in my journal about being struck powerfully by a line in a sermon given by my friend John during a weekday Mass. John had said, “It is easlier to be thankful for a steadfast God than to live in the image and likeness of a steadfast God.”

At the time my focus was on the steadfastness of God. I relfected that our reactions to others are often changeable – we like someone, we don’t; we want to be with someone, we don’t. God has none of that changeability. God always loves and God always wants to be with us.

As I looked at the line again yesterday, it struck me as offering a way to think hard about what being made in the image and likeness of God demands of us. When we think of what it is about God we are thankful for – God’s unconditional love…God’s steadfastness…God’s forgiveness, etc. – we find a blueprint for what we should be aspire to as beings who are made in the image and likeness of God.

The gratitude part is easy. But trying to really live as beings made in God’s image and likeness is a worthy challenge. It is who and what we were created to be.

Representations of God

I mentioned in a post last week that I recently attended a program given by Dr. Ana-Maria Rizzuto on Understanding Religious and Spiritual Issues During Psychoanalytic Psychoterapy. I was sufficiently engaged by her talk that I’ve read several articles or book chapters written by her over the last week.

We all have representations (the term Rizzuto uses rather than “images”) of God. Unable to have a direct sensory experience of God, we resort to analogic representations. Children, needing to find some way to give shape to God when they are first told about him, form their first representation of God based on their experience with their parents. Over time, the adolescent disengages with parental representations. Rizzuto writes that “a normal crisis of late adolescence often involves a comparable religious crisis. From that moment on, ever until death, each new major emotional encounter with people contributes to modifications of God representations. Often they are silent and unnoticed; otehr times they appear as profound crises calling for a reorganization of the person’s religious stance.”

Understanding this process seems to me useful for two reasons. First, it reminds us that our images or representations of God are precisely that – analogic representations that help us give words and shape to the God who ultimately is mystery, who we can not directly experience with our senses. I think people sometimes forget that the image is image and not definition of God. (I’m thinking, for example, of people who were offended by the author of The Shack portraying God “the Father” as a motherly black woman.) Second, understanding the process helps us understand that it is completely natural that our images or representation of God change over time and there is nothing wrong with the fact that they do.