Aurlandsfjord, photo by Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho, creative commons
29Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.
I know that Paul is talking about the various idols of the ancient world. This is pretty standard Biblical critique of the polytheistic cultures of the Mediterranean world. There are famous passages in the prophets that mock the stone and wood blocks carved and covered in gold and silver.
But if we leave it there, if this critique is only about images, we will miss something important. We not only create physical images; we create mental ones. And when we confuse the images formed by our imagination with the one who formed us, when we confuse our images with the truth to which they point, we tread on dangerous ground – ground that usually ends up with tears if not with killings.
Is the god that Boko Haram celebrates a product of eternity or of their own imagination? For that matter is the god invoked by most of us the holy and transcendent one, or a god of our imaginations?
It is not possible for us to think about God without thinking in images. We are creatures of time and space. We cannot imagine quarks. We picture atoms like little planets though we know they are not. We imagine molecules with images of tinker toys. We imagine foreign nations from the pictures on television or in National Geographic. We need images. We see faces in toast, for goodness sake. It is the way we are wired.
And the scripture is full of wondrous images: God as a great king surrounded by his royal court and an angelic army. God as a hovering eagle, a mother hen gathering her chicks, a father carrying a son. God as a husband rescuing a newborn abandoned to the wolves, raising her to be a beautiful young woman. God as a good shepherd, a rock, a fountain of living water. There are an endless variety of rich images – none of which are to be taken literally. God is not a chicken. We seem to understand that, but sometimes forget he is not a literal father. I love the book of Job, for Job is silenced by the majesty of a God he cannot comprehend.
We stand before the eternal, silenced by mystery and majesty, humbled by our inability to see beyond that horizon. Moses is said to have spoken with God “face to face”, but is the word ‘face’ to be taken literally? When Moses asks to see God’s face he is allowed only to see from behind as God goes ahead of him. We are watchers of the flame. Shadows on the wall. Hints and images.
But there are words and there are deeds of this eternal source of life. Deeds that rescue and deliver. Words that protect the poor and the orphan. Words and deeds that cast down the mighty and raise up the broken. Words of fierce anger that call for justice to roll down like waters. Words that forgive and point forward to an end to tears.
The God we preach is too often the god of our imaginations. Jesus the feminist. Jesus the revolutionary. Jesus the defender of the status quo (God and country Jesus). Jesus the source of prosperity and success. God the law-giver and a god who frees us from all law. God who forgives all and a god who will come in wrath to purge the world of the wicked. These gods of our imaginations were invoked not only in defense of crusades and inquisitions and an imperial papacy, but in defense of abusive homes and churches and bigotries great and small – and endless self-righteousness.
“We ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.”
Sometimes this god of our imagination is what we want God to be, sometimes what we fear God to be, and sometimes a silly caricature that excuses our rejection of any transcendent claim on our lives, any accountability to a truth beyond us.
To a human creature perpetually wanting to fashion God in our image, God presents himself ever illusive, “I will be who I will be,” yet ever summoning us to hear, to see, to trust, to follow. He – this word, too, is a metaphor and trick of language – He summons us into the dark cloud of the holy mountain. He speaks from the whirlwind. And in the greatest mystery of all, he summons us to the cradle and the cross. This child of Bethlehem, son of Mary, a construction worker from Galilee of all ungodly places, this man from Nazareth is the true icon of God. Healing. Forgiving. Gathering. Suffering. Teaching. Summoning. Serving. Sending. Dying. Rising.
The gods of our imaginations are not worthy of our allegiance. We must dare to stand before the mystery. We must have courage to let God be God. We must acknowledge God will not fit in any of our boxes. And in humility, but with daring and discipleship, hold to the promise: “He who has seen me has seen the father.”