Natural Changes In The Way We Image God

Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.
It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live.
– Rabbi Abraham Heschel

For me, behind the question of God’s existence is the question of my existence. In other words, I begin my pondering about the existence of God with the humble recognition that I  cannot claim credit for my being here. None of us can.

The greatest puzzle in life always before us, if we ever have the courage to stop for a moment to think about it, is that ultimately none of us can explain how we got here. Oh, to be sure, we may have enough science today to know the process that resulted in our being born of our parents, but even with all our technological advances to date, all the world’s scientists combined still do not have an answer for how the whole process got started. I think we all need to reflect more on the implications of the fact that what we do not know far exceeds what we do know.

I always have found admitting to the reality that our origins are shrouded in a great mystery to be not only a humbling, but even a humorous experience.  We still have no better answer for precisely how – or why – our Universe came into being than did our ancient ancestors.  The simple fact of that mystery is behind all of our waking and dreaming moments, and ought always to help us take ourselves less seriously.

Māori, New Zealand.Primoridial parents, Papa (Earth Mother) and Rangi (Sky Father)

Faced with the question of existence, our ancient earthbound ancestors in some cases envisioned a whole host of characters responsible for creation. along with life’s joys and trials. Some imagined a home for their gods in the vast, distant, star-filled heavens that appeared above them each night. To them, this dome of starlight appeared to be precise, orderly, predictable and steadfast. It was a realm in stark contrast to the chaotic, changing, and even dangerous world they inhabited below it

In the latter half of the 20th Century, human astronauts broke the bonds of Earth and rocketed into the “heavens,” finding no resident gods there and effectively shattering the previous worldview of many human cultures, though some still insist on holding on to old stories in a literal way.

I am coming to believe, however, that what science has helped us to see is that the mystery of our origins is far more beautiful and complex than any of our ancestors previously had discerned or imagined.

Initially, I found my own exposure to these revelations and the ensuing shift in my own image of God disconcerting.  However, I since have found it possible to reclaim images of God from within my own Christian tradition that are rich with meaning and comfort. In this process, I have not found it necessary to abandon God, simply my previous image or way of thinking and speaking about God.

During this period of transition, thanks to the professors I had in graduate school, I learned that this process of changing the way we think about God is quite natural, both for us as individuals and as human societies.  It has been a part of the Judeo-Christian religious and spiritual tradition throughout its history.  When we look more closely at Christian Scripture, we see these different images revealed.

She Who IsThe American eco-feminist theologian, Elizabeth Johnson, explains the process through which we grow and change in the way we think and speak about God in her book, She Who Is. Johnson suggests that this process is driven by the challenges in our daily lives. Whether these challenges simply affect us personally or extend to our whole society, this process starts anew when the image of God we presently hold no longer seems adequate in the face of our changing experiences. Today, our having traveled as humans far beyond our planet’s surface provides one such major challenge to our previously held views of reality.

This process follows a cyclical movement. It begins with our current situation and what Johnson calls a “dominant concern.”  That concern may be anything from the search for food, the need to fight off perceived enemies, or just getting through another challenging day. It seems we humans have a tendency in the face of such concerns to develop an image of God. Once formulated, this image of God is tied to and informs our ideas about who we are and how we are to behave (theologians call this our “praxis”).  This situation lasts until the next “shift” causes us to rethink our God image.

IMAGE OF GOD CYCLE (Click this link to view an illustration of this cycle.

For many of our ancient ancestors, their dominant concern was survival in an environment filled with life and death challenges. Their images of God often reflected this. they viewed God as the great provider and protector of those in need. We humans today have inherited many of the images of God that our ancient ancestors developed in response to their private or communal concerns.

The need to develop a new God image arises, according to Johnson, when a gradual or sudden “shift” in “the way we’ve always done things” happens. This shift might arise for us individually in the form of a sudden tragedy like the death of a close friend or loved one that shakes our faith in the God image we presently hold.  Sometimes this shift happens for an entire people.

Our gains in scientific knowledge in the past century have led to one such shift. Another modern “shift” within the Christian tradition has been the advent of the feminist movement. As feminist theologians called into question the exclusive use of male imagery for God within the Christian tradition, they explored new possibilities and reclaimed more feminine images within the tradition.

As I said at the start of this post, the humble acknowledgement of the mystery of my existence grounds the way I image God today. It is a less certain image, perhaps, than in the past, but somehow it feels more true, given what we know and especially what we do not know.

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