The Image of God

Scripture: Genesis 1: 1-2, Psalm 8: 3-9

“If men had three sides, God would be a triangle.”

That quote is from Montesquieu, a French political philosopher is one of the funniest, and most true, quotes I know about religion. Although some people think this quote blasphemous at first glance, I don’t think it is.  I think that it actually profoundly confronts one of the great foibles of humanity. 

Indeed, it’s one of the truly ironic parts of the Bible and our Christian faith that one of the most theologically potent statements in the book of Genesis is that we are created in the image of God, yet we all too often create God in our own image.

This explains our tendency to imagine God as being just like us.

Our tendency to imagine that God might drive a pickup truck, listen to country music, and vote straight ticket Republican, or listen to NPR, drive a Prius, and vote straight ticket Democratic.

Heck, even in our tendency on a basic level to think about what God even looks like. In the 9 AM service, we will do an art exercise related to this, asking folks to draw what they think God looks like. 

I don’t know what people will draw. I know that our Western art traditions have often depicted God as an old white man with a beard.

We have tended to draw and conceive of God as looking like Zeus from the old Greek religion. It was what the artists in the Roman Empire were used to drawing. And it looks good on a statue.

As an aside, if you see any of the really old ancient Greek statues now starkly white, they were originally brightly painted with oranges and reds and blues. The paint just chipped off of them, it’s what happens after a few thousand years. Which left us with an impression of austere beauty which they didn’t have originally.

But this conception of God as a sort of Jewish Zeus is much more a cultural thing then a biblical thing. None of our descriptions of God in the Bible show him to have skin that looks like mine or that of a marble statue.

The book of Revelations, which has our most comprehensible description of God, tells of us of a being that has skin like Carnelian.  Carnelian is a reddish orange stone. It does not look like my skin. Nor honestly, does it really look like any human skin color.

The description of God’s skin as being like Jasper is a little bit more interesting. Because there’s a lot of different types of Jasper. There’s green Jasper and yellow Jasper, and blue Jasper and black Jasper and almost every color imaginable. But most of them don’t look like human skin colors. Remember too, that this is the most…comprehensible of the physical descriptions of God.

Indeed, the glimpses of God that we read in books like Ezekiel and Daniel, where prophets are transported in visions to the heavenly courts, paint fantastical images of not only God, but of the heavens. 

Ezekiel’s descriptions of angels in those visions are nothing like the adorable putti cherubs of renaissance art.  No, in the vision of Ezekiel, angels, although they do have “human form”, have four wings, four faces- a human, lion, ox, and eagle, if you’re wondering, and they move without turning, dashing about like lightning.

Indeed, if this is what angels look like, no wonder Gabriel has to tell Mary to not be afraid in the Annunciation story. The way that God is described by Ezekiel is a bit less…weird, but more…primal. 

Here’s Ezekiel’s description of God, from Ezekiel 1:26-28 “seated upon a throne: and seated above the likeness of a throne was something that seemed like a human form. Upward from what appeared like the loins I saw something like gleaming amber, something that looked like fire enclosed all around; and downward from what looked like the loins I saw something that looked like fire, and there was a splendor all around. Like the bow in a cloud on a rainy day, such was the appearance of the splendor all around. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.”

Upon seeing this, Ezekiel has no choice but to lay down and cover his face.

The upper half of God glows like amber, a fire contained, while the lower half of God is fire uncontained. God is the rainbow, the sign of hope after a rainy day. But something that’s interesting about this description is that this is not actually a description of God. This is a description of the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.  This is three levels removed from physical description.  And still it overwhelmed him utterly.

This reminds us that as much as we think we can categorize, philosophize, and understand God through complex metaphors, for humans, God is ultimately unknowable and incomprehensible.

This is why our God should not be thought of, or even drawn as, a Jewish Zeus.  For our God is ultimately that which is ultimate. God is the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and Omega.

When we deal with things that are ultimate, the metaphors we use for them become very important. This is the heart of the debate over why we should consider very carefully how we portray God.

After all, it’s part of our work and the work of faithfulness to align our desires to those of God.  Depending on our tradition, we might call it sanctification or holiness or theosis, but we still want to become like God. 

For folks who grew up with a particular image of God- something like the Jewish Zeus western image of God, it’s easy to become upset or confused when someone makes a statement like, “God is black” or “God is a woman.”

“That’s not what the Bible says!”

But can we then also imagine the anger and confusion that Native Americans and Enslaved Africans had when, encountering a God who looks like their conquerors and masters, and not like them. Because if God looks like one set of people, particularly if they’re powerful, maybe God is closer to them, and if there’s another group of people that don’t look like God, maybe they’re not as worthy of God’s love.

Maybe they’re not really people at all. This was a case of people using an image of God that they created to deny the image of God in their neighbors. This was all too commonly part of the logic that was used to justify a lot of bad things that happened in our past, and sometimes, in our present.

I will say that this doesn’t mean that we’re all going to become pagan and start doing sun dances and worshiping the mother Goddess or anything. The language that Jesus uses to describe God is that of a loving Father. I, for my part, plan on sticking to that imagery. 

Partly that’s because the image of God loving us like a father is a comfortable one for me: I lost my own father when I was six years old. I also believe that the word Father describes God’s role in the trinity imperfectly, but better than other words that have been suggested.

But it does mean that I’m not surprised when folks want to see themselves in the image of God by using female pronouns or other descriptions. It’s not as though, based on those descriptions of God from the book of Ezekiel, that God being a human male is really accurate either, unless I’m really confused about human anatomy and some dudes are actually beings of fire that shine like rainbows.

But, what if the image of God isn’t about the outside at all? What if the image of God is something spiritual, something inside of us, a capacity to love and connect with each other and with God?

What if the image of God does not concern outward appearance at all, but instead is a concern of the human heart? I’ll leave us with two stories about that illustrate God’s concern for our hearts.

The first involves the prophet Samuel, who would go on to crown King David.  This story takes place right before the confrontation between David and Goliath. King Saul has gone against God, and lost God’s favor. Samuel is frantically looking about for a replacement- it’s not good to have a King that God is mad at; it frequently causes death to those around them.

The prophet Samuel knows that one of Jesse’s sons is going to be the anointed king. But when Jesse comes around to show off his sons, Samuel sees Jesse’s first son, Eliab, and thinks, “This must be the guy.” Eliab is handsome and tall, Eliab is majestic, Eliab is the guy that all the guys want to be, and all the ladies want to be with.

But Eliab is not to be the anointed king. Because God in 1 Samuel 16:7 says, “ But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

And finally, in Psalm 51, which we heard at the Shrove Tuesday supper, one of the traditional readings at the beginning of lent, reminds us that event though God is beyond cosmic in scale, the thing that most interests him is the love found in the human heart.

It is the smallest of shifts that causes the unmoved mover, the alpha and omega, to be well pleased with us.

Hear these words from the fifty first psalm:

O Lord, open my lips and my mouth will declare your praise.

For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Of all the miracles in creation, that one, might be the greatest.