What is your image of God?
By that, I am asking: how do you think of God, when you think about God? What images come to mind?
Some of my friends tell me quickly they have absolutely NO image of God in their mind. For them, God does not exist. And others tell me their image is pretty negative, a judgmental God that seems vindictive at best and capricious at worst. horrific images perpetrated by mean-spirited spokespersons and congregations that accentuate an angry God. And I have a few friends that tell me plainly that they just don’t think about God at all, not in the equation.
I sometimes wish I didn’t think about God at all, but I have little choice. I grew up in a family, in a community where God was all around, at least in our talk, our songs, and our minds. Like fluoride in the water, God was in my life. As Steve Harvey says, I had me a lot of church, 24/7. And so I had to do something with this God that figured so “deep and wide” (those in the South of God club know what I am talkin’ about) in my life.
My life question emerged as this: Why do some people have faith and some people don’t? Maybe I was fortunate, lucky or blessed (depending on your perspective) but I met up with the leading thinker on the psychological aspects of faith, Dr. James Fowler, and I joined him at Emory in his research in the emerging theory of faith development.
We developed this exercise at the Center for Faith Development early in the 80s, to prompt people to think about how their image of God changes through time. It’s actually a pretty simple exercise but it led to some profound discoveries for people. I am inviting you to take a pause in your busyness and give this your attention.
The exercise began by asking people to either describe in words, or in a drawn image, how they thought about God when they were children. What did you think God was like when you were a kid?
We then asked our participants to think about how they thought about God when they were adolescents.
Next, we asked the very personal question of how they were imaging God in this present moment. How does God show up for you in your life now?
The clear result of this exercise was an experiential recognition that our images of God change through time. The image of God we had as a kid necessarily develops, or changes, as we experience more and more in the course of our life.
The early image often was that of a grandfather in the sky, looking down from heaven. Interestingly, the image often had the God-figure with lightning bolts in this hands, ready to catch someone doing something wrong. But there were contrasting images of a God-figure with a huge smile on God’s face, sometimes with a hand reaching down from clouds offering help along the way. It begs the question, what kind of environment were these people brought up in? What images of God were they being fed by their parents, and by the congregations in which they grew up? Almost everyone had an early image of God that was powerful. And again, the takeaway was that the early image was not adequate to them as they grew up, thus changing it to fit their experience.
And so, here it is: our image of God changes. We can debate the issue of whether God stays the same all the time, which is a traditional view from religion. Or, we may adopt a more evolutionary view, put forward by process theologians, that posit that God in fact changes along with the Creation, developing, unfolding, if you will. That’s a worthy discussion for another time. Today, our focus is on our image of God, what is it? Clearly, it does develop, or change through our journey in time, hopefully becoming more in line with our experience and more adequate to give us a living image of connection and meaning.
It was interesting to me that when we asked people to focus on their image of God in adolescence, their teenage years, there was a profound shift from “The Guy in the Sky” to more of a close, intimate presence. In our mostly Christian audience, the shift was clearly from the Old Man Judge to the young Jesus who is my friend, even my “best friend”. As cognitive structural psychologists, we found it fascinating how this image shift in content followed the cognitive shift to that of reflective thinking, that is, we come to the Copernican revolution of realizing that there are other people out there, the community, and that they are looking at us, or more tellingly, “ME!”. We comprehend, in a new and sometimes scary way, that people are looking at us, and assessing us, judging us. I don’t need to cite studies that teens are painfully aware of others, as they literally become self-conscious, We have all been through that painful, exciting journey, and for some of us, we have had kids who have taken the ride. It makes sense that their focus would shift from the all powerful God, removed in the sky, to a God that is intimate, able to put an arm around us, and love us. This is the psychological mechanism that fosters that shift in many people.
Again, the insight is that our perception of God changes as we grow. It is a natural process that happens, although there are many examples of how certain experiences, such as abuse, grief, trauma, can interrupt this development.
As we continue to grow and mature, our experiences and our education help to form us and our images of God. It was fascinating for me to interview persons across wide demographics about their journey: what content they were given by their home churches, what they adopted as their own, what they rebelled against, even rejected, and images that came from other sources. My interviews which lasted for three hours, revealed a depth of experience, and mysteriously, a process of making sense out of the world.
This was the raison d’etre of our work. How do people find meaning in their life? While I had studied and mastered the theoretical concepts of the faith development theory, I was astounded to hear the stories, the narratives, of how people had negotiated the shifts and changes in their life. Each person developed a guiding sense of what is going on in this world we live in. Homo poeta, is the term I loved as I was beginning my study. It states that human beings are meaning makers. We try to make sense, even when there is mostly chaos and disruption all around. Sometimes, people align their sense of the way things work, the nature of reality, with a biblical story that seems to make sense, reading their life experience through that lens. Other times, people who have experienced a barrage of violence and suffering, their conclusion is that the world is not trustworthy, you have to watch out for yourself. Their way of living life will prove to be much different than the way one who has a foundational trust in the goodness of life.
Homo poeta. Humans are meaning makers. I had this theoretical concept get flesh and bones for me one day interviewing a young girl in a clinical setting. She had landed in this home for children as her family setting was judged to be inadequate…that’s the word on her patient’s chart. In interviewing this young adolescent in my role as a chaplain at this treatment center, this girl revealed to me that her father, who was an addict, would take her to a local park in Atlanta, and sell her for sexual favors. Her depression, mixed with explosions of rage, reflected her visceral reaction to being used by her father in this way. I felt if I was interviewing a ticking time bomb, embedded in a beautiful doll, who had already learned how to sell herself as sexual object. To be honest, I was struggling with my own anger with this son of a bitch who would use his child in this form of sexual violence, not exactly the clinical objectivity I had been taught, but that’s the purview of my supervisor.
I mustered a simple question, my mantra given to me by a grizzled clinical professor: What do you think is going on? She shifted her posture, from a seductive lean to a seated position, hands clasped across her lap, as if sitting on a bench. She looked out the window, I’m guessing that she was wishing to escape, but after almost a minute of silence, she said, “I guess I must have done something really bad for my daddy to do this to me.”
I’ll never forget it. Unable to make sense out of her father’s action, she would construct a web of meaning, even it it were to pin the blame on herself. Better that than no meaning at all. As humans, we are wired to resist the notion that there is no underlying meaning to our lives, so we become creative in drawing out a construction of sense and purpose. We become authors of our story, a story that tries to make sense out of the events that make up our life. Homo poeta.
Turns out, she was fortunate, lucky, or blessed (depending on your web of meaning or faith) to escape the hell of her family and be placed in a good environment where some healing could begin. I followed her for years, as she wound up in a foster home that was a healthy one, where she was given images that contrasted those of her early life. She taught me the rough and raw clinical meaning of this rarefied human developmental theory. It is both beautiful and puzzling that we humans are indeed, homo poeta, makers of meaning.
After 9/11, my office had a line of folks who sought me out, trying to make sense of this terrorist attack on our civilization. Where was God when those planes were crashing into the Twin Towers? Where was the Almighty when innocent people on those top floors waited for rescue, before the collapse of those structures? That’s cinematic in proportion, but it happens all the time as we seek to make sense of our lives. A heart attack ends a life, a devastating cancer diagnosis is given, a suicide is reported. How do you make sense out of that? How does your faith deal with those hard facts?
For some of us, we simply paper over the gap of meaning, moving on to the next frame. Others, construct underlying structures that make bad things happen even in the world that is God’s. Others choose not to deal with it, put it aside, keep moving. Others enter into a wrestling match with reality, much like Jacob, trying to gain a blessing, even if one’s faith exits with a limp, sometimes profound. And some simply check out.
How is it for you?
What sense are you making from this pandemic, this intrusion of a virus that goes by the name of COVID-19? How have you dealt with the isolation, the deep pause? Does it feel forced, you giving in with compliance, or have you chosen to enter in with a thirst for learning? Do you see this as a part of living in nature that is filled with disease, or do you blame someone, here at home, or abroad? Have you constructed or bought into a meaning scenario that carefully constructs a conspiratorial group that hopes to control your life? Have you abdicated your responsibility to the experts, trusting, having faith, in those scientists, or government officials? What a sense are you making of all this, homo poeta?
How does this time fit into your view of the world, of how God works, or doesn’t work?
I began this article with an invitation for you to take a look at your image of God.
You might begin by reviewing your life by my old Image of God exercise. What did your childhood God look like? Did the image change as an adolescent, young adult, or in middle age? What does it look like now?
We all have images of God, even if we don’t believe in a Supreme Being. That’s an image of absence and it has its own consequences. In fancy philosophical language, it is called a cosmology, that is, how you think the world works. Some people frame it as a “world view”, that is, how do we see the world that we are in? What lens do you use to see the world?
Sometimes, this image or view is largely unexamined. Sometimes it comes from the groups that we inhabit. What have you learned from your faith community about all that? What has this country taught you about how the world works, or should work? And if you live in a certain part of the country, particularly South of God, what did your culture tell you about the lay of the land, the way things are? Who counts and has value, and more telling, who doesn’t?
Examining those internal images, the lens you use to see the world, can assist you in becoming more self aware. How has the experience of the pandemic informed your view of life? Has it increased your sense of gratitude for the gift of life or had it made you more frightened, scared of losing it? Or both? Many people tell me that life feels like a roller coaster these days, up and then down, and then up again. How are you making sense of all this? How does it fit into the image of life you brought into this time? Are you feeling more vulnerable, more anxious, more at risk? Is this time of pause giving you an opportunity that you were looking for or needed?
Truth is, COVID-19 has affected people in a variety of ways. some positive, some negative, some mixed. Talking about your experience with a trusted other can be helpful. Discussing your experience in a community of others can bring insight and connection, even in the face of isolation.
I know we are faced with all kinds of limitations, but I want to encourage you to find a way to talk about your experience with another person. It can be as simple as calling a friend on the phone. Yesterday, I reached out to my friend who happens to be a psychiatrist, and we both shared about our stress, our anxiety, even our boredom. It felt good to be completely honest about how I was feeling, how I was experiencing this odd time. It was a fruitful time. We happen to share a faith perspective that allowed us to dive into the deep end of the pool which turned out to be surprisingly insightful. The key is making time to make a connection.
One side note: for those of us isolating in families. Our closeness and the increased amount of time in close contact sometimes does not make the kind of honesty I am talking about easy. It’s our very closeness, our intertwined life, that may keep us from diving deep in this precarious, tension filled time. Sometimes, it makes good sense to reach out to someone who has NO agenda for you, and is just there to listen, to clarify, to respond. Think about what it is you need in this time.
Our time of isolation seems to be lifting, but life as we knew it has changed. Be kind and easy with your self and others as we move into this new way of being. I encourage you to reflect on your life, your images of life and of God, and what you want in this life we are given. And I encourage you to renew your connection to others, family and friends. As St. Jerry of Garcia noted in his spiritual notes, what a long, strange trip it’s been. And as the inimitable Penny Lane reminds us, it’s all happening! Be there. Blessings.