Bodhisattvas, the Burning Bush or My Ghanaian Cousin: What’s Your Image of God?

“I’ve Got My Own Religion” read a small pamphlet left on the bus I boarded. According to my best guess, it has a rabbi (or a Greek Orthodox priest?), a woman in a burqa, a Buddhist monk, and a woman with some kind of cross wrapped in twine (is she Wiccan or something? Forgive my ignorance). Anyway, they all have the friendliest expressions (except the Muslim lady, it’s hard to tell what her face looks like). Somehow, their innocent smiles – especially in the case of the beatific expression of the elderly Buddhist – make the part about the lake of fire, featured inside the pamphlet, all that much more painful.

“It is not true that all religious beliefs are of equal value,” the tract explains. “Jesus Christ claims to be the truth. He did not say ‘I am a way,’ but rather, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by Me’ (John 14:6).”

To me, tracts like this have a glaring rhetorical flaw. Expecting them to convert devout non-Christians seems a bit like believing that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would clamor for American citizenship if we could just get him a booklet declaring that the US Constitution is the source of all truth.

“Dear Soul,” says a pamphlet ominously titled “Where Are You Going To Spend Eternity?”

“If you have chosen not to admit your guilt and to trust Jesus Christ as your Saviour, please read what the Bible says ‘…he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.’ (John 3:18)”. The bizarre underlying assumption here is that even if you don’t believe in Jesus, you do believe in the authority of the Bible.

I think it’s safe to say that devout non-Christians and atheists are comfortable with their beliefs (or lack thereof) at least in part because, for them, the Bible has a bit of a credibility problem.  People who don’t believe in Jesus Christ probably don’t put great stock in the Bible, so it stands to reason that biblically-based threats may not be effective.

I know, pointing out the intellectual fallacies of the faithful, or faith itself, isn’t that productive (or original). I admit, since my own upbringing in an insular Christian denomination (briefly explained here), I have long failed to focus exclusively on the sermon. Instead, the child of Sunday school lessons featuring Jesus as a young shepherd with soft brown hair, I used to sit in the pews and wonder how we knew what Jesus looked like. For example, how did we know that Jesus was white?

For years, I secretly wondered what it was like for non-white Christians to have Jesus resolutely represented as a member of another race. But I recently realized that I know exactly what it feels like to have your own image conspicuously separated from your image of God.

My parents’ church refuses to ordain women. Perhaps because of an awareness of how this appears to the modern world, the webpage for its theological school is couched in carefully gender-neutral terms, but any woman who attempted to apply to the program would quickly discover the males-only policy.

A clergy procession at the dedication of the cathedral in my parents' hometown in 1919. It'd look the same today: no women.

Many strident opponents of female clergy declare that over all other doctrinal or cultural factors, priests should be men because maleness is essential to our understanding of God. As some ministers of my home church insist, the Bible does not have a single mention of God as a mother or a woman, and references to God’s power are couched in exclusively male terms. Therefore, a woman could never represent Him on the chancel.

The cathedral's chancel today. Except for the annual Christmas pageant (someone has to be Mary), it's a no-woman zone during services.

After about twenty-five years of parroting what I’d learned about God, I began to consider the effects of systematically separating the image of my own body from my image of God. I began to wish I had a spiritual role model whom I could better relate to. I began to think that there’s no good reason women should be barred from spiritual leadership.

It may be the echoing drumbeat of my male-centric childhood faith that sometimes makes me fear that my seeking a female spiritual inspiration is like saying, “tell me when God looks like me, and I’ll tune in,” as if what I really want to worship is an image of myself. Am I setting my own self up as some kind of false idol in opposition to the Ten Commandments?

I have to admit, I have a soft spot for the Commandments – or the lesson in any religion that promotes love to the neighbor by avoiding things like lying, coveting, infidelity and murder. I’ve clung to my faith in the value of moral behavior as I’ve grappled with my image of God.

As a pragmatic person, I like consistent principles even if the deeper reasons for some things are unknown. For example, my body is affected by a chronic illness. Nobody knows what caused the illness, but I take daily steps to combat the symptoms and continue working. Speaking of work, nobody knows what’s going to happen to journalists in the digital world. But I take things a week at a time and do the work that exists.

I don’t know what I believe about God – I have no desire to deny God, but I also don’t see proof that God exists. Just as I manage my illness without knowing its cause, and pursue my career without knowing its future, I decided that I’m not going to wait until I’m sure of God and God’s image to live life as charitably as I can. Some people have a glowing surety of God’s role in their lives. I take crude comfort in knowing that if the faithful are right and my soul is un-evolved, at least I’m being kind to others.

I always thought that my home faith, sometimes known as the New Church or Swedenborgianism for the 18th-century philosopher whose writings inform its Bible-based doctrine, took a lenient view of my agnostic state: Swedenborgians usually don’t spout the lake-of-fire stuff. Rather, they believe that anyone who lives a charitable life according to the precepts he or she knows can go to heaven, regardless of denomination.

But wait. Not so fast. Apparently I’m on the wrong track here.

My long-time friend and high-school classmate, Coleman, grew more certain of his faith as fast as I got confused. I published a book criticizing the teaching methods of Swedenborgian clergy. Coleman enrolled in their theological school. Now he’s a pastor, while I seldom go to church but continue to agitate the community with pro-woman articles.

We rarely agree on anything, but it doesn’t really matter. We met for breakfast yesterday.

He’s a young, social media-savvy pastor. “I want this blog post to be a challenge,” he began a recent online offering about the importance of acknowledging God as Jesus Christ, despite Swedenborgians’ penchant for tolerance. He posits that this tolerance should extend to people who have had no contact with Christianity, but for those who have had access to the Bible and therefore had the chance to know Christ, it’s a different story.

He presented a series of biblical and Swedenborgian passages that demonstrate the importance of envisioning and acknowledging Jesus Christ to make it into heaven.

When I needled him in the comments, he responded at length.

“I don’t think a person can ever really be transformed unless they allow the Lord in,” he says. “Although other religions do present some concept of God, I believe the picture of God as the Lord Jesus Christ is the fullest one. So, if a person rejects Jesus as God, he’s rejecting something in God.”

Coleman deals kindly with me. “Agnostic people can repent too,” he says. He calls my agnosticism “a good starting point” since it’s not an outright rejection of Jesus Christ, and I can still journey to acceptance by praying to God to “help my unbelief”. He advises me to love the idea of Jesus and the idea of Jesus’s reality, and to “want Him to be real.” But I sense the same flaw that rankled me in the bus pamphlets. Just as those Christian propagandists assume that excerpted passages of the Bible will be meaningful to non-Christians, my friend seems to expect that my doubts can be excavated by prayer to reveal a native, underlying certainty in the Lord Jesus Christ.

I’m still troubled. The guilty truth, now made public online, is that in the broader context of my life, my agnosticism isn’t a starting point. Rather, the solid faith in God’s form that Coleman enjoys now was actually my own starting point. But through a lot of study and thought and living, my perspective began to change.

Coleman seems to be saying that even if people like me are acting in a moral way, our spiritual insides are still fatally unmoored as long as we don’t consciously pin our faith on Jesus Christ.

No-one but Jesus Christ allows us to fully uproot the sin in our lives: “I think that only happens when we shun evil as a sin against the Lord.” Unless we view repentance this way, “we can and WILL justify living selfishly.” People like me might “MOSTLY not embrace evil”, but since they don’t have a bedrock (i.e., the Lord Jesus Christ) for their moral convictions, they’ll always end up with “wiggle room” to excuse sin, thinking, for example, that “it’s OK to hate THIS person” if somebody wrongs them.

Perhaps if I could do a better job of accepting the Lord Jesus Christ, it would temper my hatred for Rush Limbaugh.

Slut: Noun. 1) an immoral or dissolute woman; prostitute 2) A woman who speaks publicly on political opinions that are opposed to Rush's.

In the gentlest terms possible, Coleman is advising me on my shot of getting into heaven. Ostensibly, Swedenborgians object to what they call “the doctrine of faith alone”, which is ably demonstrated by these words of the “Eternity” pamphlet: “Realize that you cannot do anything to earn or help earn your way into heaven. Jesus already completely paid for it when He died on the cross.” (And you thought going to the amusement park was expensive.)

Swedenborgians claim to believe that, for salvation, good works are just as important as faith. But it seems the take-home point of my friend’s blog is that ultimately, it matters little that I’ve lived a good life if I haven’t based everything on the correct image of the biblical God Coleman emphasizes as a “Man”.

Which, frankly, reminds me of this passage of the “Eternity” pamphlet: “The question is not if you are a member of a church, but are you saved? It is not if you are leading a good life, but are you saved?” In my own case, my salvation lies in accepting the proper image of God.

Even the most literalistic of Bible-based faiths give a certain leeway when it comes to images of God. The back of the Jehovah’s Witness Watchtower magazine provides three images and asks, “How Do You View Jesus?” The choices are “newborn baby”, “dying man”, or “exalted King”.

Courtesy of Jehovah's Witnesses.

The same publication carries another perspective on accepting Jesus that stopped me in my tracks. Some of Jesus’s contemporaries were “humble enough” to accept that he was God: “included among these were several of Jesus’ family members, who at first had not taken seriously the possibility that one of their relatives could be the Messiah.”

It’s hard enough to accept that a man (Man?) born 2,000 years ago was God or God’s son. But imagine the difficulties of believing that your own brother, cousin or uncle – he of the sly childhood pinches, promising singer/songwriter career or vaguely inappropriate wedding toasts – was the Messiah.

So God can come in at least a few different forms. My home church emphasized Jesus as a grown-up shepherd or a shining bearded man in a white-and-gold robe, but come to think of it, sometimes God was a lamb. I also remember something about a burning bush, a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire. At Christmas, of course, we all took a time-out to worship Jesus as an infant. Someone’s newborn baby was always cast to lie in a manger on the cathedral chancel during our annual Christmas pageant.

(Last year my cousin married a Ghanaian woman and their baby was cast as Jesus. It was definitely the first time Jesus was ever portrayed by a black girl at my church.)

Hark, the herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn king!

But acceptable images of God in the Christian tradition are a drop in the bucket compared to the altars of a Buddhist temple.

I recently made a new friend who’s been a Buddhist nun for almost thirty years. We discussed life and death and faith over bowls of Pho, and then she took me to visit her temple. There, surrounded by a kaleidoscope of stunning images – people, animals and trees, demigods, bodhisattvas and the Buddha – I got a lesson from Geshe Sonam, a Buddhist teacher who studied in Tibet for 20 years.

(He seemed so nice that I didn’t feel it would be appropriate to bring up the lake of fire.)

I lingered in front of one image in particular. Tara, a bright-blue female Bodhisattva, perched in the lotus position on a cushion, but with one foot touching the ground. My friend explained that this goddess was portrayed this way because just soon as you call for her, she’s there, like a mother who hears her child cry in the night.

Comparing Tara to Mary in the Christian tradition, my friend explained that whether or not Tara is visible to you, she protects against evil and danger, and is always there whenever you need her. Tara has many images and colors – up to twenty-one, depending on what branch of Buddhism you’re in – all representing different aspects of her nature.

If God does exist and does love the human race, somehow that goddess’s poised foot tells me everything I need to know.

I realize that, contrary to my pastor friend’s blog post or the Christian magazines and pamphlets I’ve collected, my essay is long on personal conjecture and short on doctrinal references. Coleman definitely has the advantage here – though, since because of my sex I’m officially barred from earning the degree that he did, my lesser knowledge may not be entirely my own fault.

I’m prepared to admit that the religious scholars may be right. Perhaps, if I can’t force myself to accept the Lord Jesus Christ (shepherd/king/baby/lamb/flaming bush/crucified Man), there really is a lake burning merrily in hell for me, Geshe Sonam, and everyone else who didn’t repent in time. Even without violent images of damnation, I am prepared to admit that the world may in fact have an objective spiritual foundation of right and wrong.

But I still ask why people insist on pressing certain images of God upon others. I think that in the case of my home church, lessons on God’s image have become bound up, whether consciously or not, with the maintenance of patriarchal leadership. There are probably as many reasons to promote a certain image of God as there are congregations in the world. Somehow, after twenty-odd years of lessons on the “true” image of God, I’m completely content to say to anyone who asks that it’s not for me to declare who God is inside of you, simply because no human being is ever fully qualified to define God for another human being.

Some recent graduates of the Swedenborgian theological school. Kind, auspicious gentlemen. But has three years of doctrinal study qualified them to define God for all of us?

“Man’s confused religions stand in opposition to God’s simple way of life,” the lake of fire pamphlet insists, explaining that man’s views are “wide” and “tolerant”, while God’s view is narrow. Does the idea that God takes a constricted view while humans take a larger view seem backward to anyone else? Insisting on one image of God for everyone probably has more do with the smallness of the human mind than with absolute truth. At the risk of lingering forever outside heaven’s gates, I will say that such a homogeneous world would bore me to death.

If concepts of God are so innate and widely varied, and yet are as crucial to our souls as every denomination keeps insisting, it seems to me that promoting the same image of God for everyone – whether with threats of eternal torture or with gentle scriptural analysis – is like expecting that everyone should be able to adopt the same internal landscape. In that case, you aren’t really saying “it is not true that all religious beliefs are of equal value.” It seems to me you’re saying, “it is not true that all people are of equal value.”

And nothing about that idea reminds me of God.

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22 Comments

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  1. Oh my, Alaina, that was amazing for so many reasons. You could get that published. Bravo to you. Since the dawn of whenever, men have created gods and they have created religion. And then they have gone to war over the religions they created, amassed power and fortunes in the name of those religions, massacred people in the name of those religions, and spent countless hours debating the meaning of the religious dogma that was written by other men just like themselves. The bottom line is that any religion is as true as people believe it to be. And the worst that can ever happen to any religion would be proof that their beliefs were “wrong.” If Jesus came back, given the hundreds of offshoots of Christianity, all professing to be the “true” way, he would have to be gotten rid of. BTW, the first photo looks like a Greek Orthodox priest, not a rabbi.

    • There is a Greek Orthodox church right down the street from us! should have known! Thanks for your comment. I agree that religions have been wreaking heinous things on us for thousands of years, but especially since I have so many dear friends of many religious denominations, I also try to see that religious organizations do good in the world, as well. No human organization is all good or all bad.

      Maybe this will be published someday but right now I have so many assignments for different pubs that I don’t really have time to pitch things to new venues. I am publishing several things each week so I will content myself with that for now and continue playtime on the blog when I have time.

      Good point about Jesus.

  2. Hello there! 🙂

    When patients saw the late great Carl Jung, they were encouraged to own up to the history of their ancestors. He never made an attempt to persuade his patients to become something they were not. Jung believed in God’s Will. You were who you were for good reason (for Divine Reason for all we know).

    I was raised in a Southern Baptist Church, but my views changed as I became a man of the world (thanks to my local library). It’s fine to study (or read for fun) religions other than the one you grew up with. It actually helps you to see how cornered our freedom of religion really is. Just be careful, and don’t ‘worship’ strange gods. They are simply fellow travelers. Fact is, when the going gets tough, we want to go back home to the familiar and trustworthy God(s) of our innocent childhood.

    Peace & Luvz! Hanging with the Prince of Peace, I am.
    Uncle Tree 🙂

  3. Wow. I have so many things to say and none of them are actually expressable in words. So here they are, in no particular order….

    I once saw a bumper-sticker that said “God is too big to fit into one religion”. Truer words were never printed on the back of a car.

    It’s ridiculous to believe that one religion is right for all people, regardless of culture, gender, tradition, intellect, and experience. God knows this, that’s why humans have imaginations with which to perceive the Divine in the best way possible to bring each individual closest to Him/Her/It. Humans are the ones who don’t understand and therefore try to shove something infinitely greater than themselves into a teensy box.

    Swedenborg said himself that he only had a tiny fraction of the TRUTH revealed to him. He was a guy from an upper-ish class Northern European country living in the 18th century. One size does NOT fit all.

    I went to a Convention service at Harvard once. It was officiated by a male AND a female minister working together. And then it hit me… For a church that goes on and on about “good and truth”, “love and wisdom”, “heart and lungs”, “celestial and spiritual” it is only right and proper for religious instructions and services to be conducted by a “female and male”.

    I’ve studied countless religions and attended a vast variety of services. In their essence they speak the same Truth. No, seriously!

    And for my final trick….

    I once had a vision. Like, a serious, came-from-somewhere-else vision. I was in a library of sorts. In the center of the room was a small podium. It had a book on it that was shining vividly with the most amazing light I’d ever seen. I don’t know what book it was, but there were a couple dozen other books stored on the podium as well that were also shining with dazzling brightness. But the library held shelves and shelves of books. They were all glowing. Some more, some less. There were so many of them. I’ve never forgotten that vision. *nods*

    Oh, and one more thing. My Dad has a saying (probably the only true thing he’s ever said :P) “Sometimes you just have to close the book and go with what’s in your heart.”

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Merry. Valuable as always. I agree that followers of Swedenborg who oppose letting women join men in spiritual leadership are merely giving lip service to the idea of male and female partnership and equality.

      My favorite bumper sticker is the one that says “coexist” but all the letters are cleverly made into symbols from different faiths.

  4. Hm, the poll at the bottom is frustrating because it doesn’t have an option I agree with. I think only God has an accurate image of God, that some people are more right than others, and that we need to have conflicting images of Him in order to approach understanding Him as a whole.

  5. Great article, Alaina. Having grown up in the Presbyterian church, I’m now at age 44 finally admitting to be an atheist. I could never get over the underlying logistical flaw that each religion requires exclusive subscription to its beliefs in order to be saved, or that God has a gender preference. That to me is a glaring example of human rules parading as God’s rules. We humans are competitive and tribal by nature, and that we love our own tribe to be dominant. That goes for every realm of our lives, including our religions.

    I like the notion of a giant benevolent parental figure in the sky who forgives and approves and comforts, and takes good care of my departed loved ones, and offers advice when I plead for help, and helps to make illogical things feel logical… but I just can’t honestly believe in such a thing. The more likely scenario is that the human need for protection and acceptance and purpose is so great, that we have created the beautiful answer to our own need.

    Thank for writing such interesting posts. I’ve been reading your blog for about a year and I think it’s great.

    • Thanks for reading, Amy, and thanks for your comments. I’m glad you enjoy the blog.

      I was a little nervous about writing this blog – I think my mother already considers much of what I write verging on over-share – because I don’t want to disappoint religious friends and family members who have an easier time with faith than I do. The longer I live, the more I see what different faiths have in common – for good or ill – and having to subscribe to one faith or the other increasingly seems nonsensical and unproductive in every sense: personally, socially, emotionally, spiritually.

      • I know what you mean about the worry of offending friends, family and colleagues. I am a graphic designer, and I try to avoid posting about confrontational topics or terribly personal topics for that reason. Religion is one of those polarizing topics.

        I have a good friend who is a hard-core evangelical Christian and Young Earth Creationist (gasp!). He’s also a very logical, very talented programmer, while I am a more right-brained designer. We couldn’t be more opposite, but we’ve worked together for years and respect each others’ intelligence. We’re able to have have really interesting religious discussions without insulting. I don’t think I would’ve been capable of this 20 years ago when I was much more insecure (and therefore adamant) in my own beliefs, and much more driven to persuade others of the “fact” that I am “right.”

        I agree with you that arguing about which flavor of religion is the Right One is futile and unproductive. Platform wars get you nowhere.

      • Can you summarize your stance on the futility of “platform wars” for our current political candidates? I’m sure they’d find it enlightening.

        I have friends and neighbors across a very wide spectrum of religious, ethnic and racial backgrounds, but I do not personally know anyone who’s a Young Earth Creationist! I struggle enough dealing with friends who are adamant that women should take a backseat to men in church matters – I honestly don’t know if I could interact productively with someone who denies the facts of life on earth. You sound more evolved than I am (ha, ha,) in enjoying your friend. I know I could never, ever vote for a political figure who ever espoused a hint of creationism…could I tolerate an anti-evolutionist friend? I don’t know. I’m actually considering a blog post on this topic – if I write it, I hope you’ll weigh in.

        As a writer, I don’t mind dabbling in potentially polarizing things – topics like gender issues, politics and child-raising are other big ones that I discuss sometimes. There’s usually a mix of negative and positive responses, and I enjoy hosting the debate. At heart, I want to write things that will get people talking. Some people will always come back and say, well your writing is crap. Ok – at least you were interested enough to engage with it.

        As a graphic designer, what’s your take on my blog illustrations? I’ve got no formal art training so I know they’re pretty crude, but I enjoy doing them.

      • I love your drawings – I believe that’s how I first found your blog actually! They’re very expressive and observant.

        I’m with you on not being able to vote for someone with extreme religious beliefs. I don’t mind being friends with people with extreme beliefs– it’s interesting and fun to delve into the mind of someone who is very different from yourself– but I sure as hell don’t want a religious extremist making decisions about my reproductive rights, who I can marry, or anything else about my personal life.

        I have a gay male friend who, intriguingly enough, voted Republican in the last election. His reasons were that while he disagreed with the Republican party on most social aspects, he was with them on the economic issues, and to him that was more important at the time.

        This friend recently got married to his male partner in an out-of-state ceremony. His father-in-law is a devout old-school Catholic, but has been very supportive and loving of his son even though he firmly believes in all the Catholic teachings, including that homosexuality is a sin. He even walked his son and son-in-law down the aisle, holding each of their hands, and then joining their hands together when they got to the altar. There’s an example of a man who doesn’t let his extreme religious convictions get in the way of basic human love and devotion for his family.

      • Thanks for your comments on the drawings! My husband does some graphic design and studied art and sometimes he bugs me about how amateurish the drawings are. Nice story about your friend and his father – thanks for sharing.

  6. Wow – that was like reading my own heart.

  7. I grew up a catholic and that pretty much explains my atheism today.

    On the other hand, it would be so much easier if I could believe that I would just be moving on to heaven when I died.

    On another note, how can promising hellfire and damnation to someone make them come to your religion? Real bad marketing there…

    • Funny, I know hardly anyone who’s Catholic – but lots of people who “grew up Catholic”.

      Good point about promising hellfire. Although I think a lot of marketing strategies do prey on our insecurities – weight loss programs/gym commercials make us believe we’re the size of orcas and make-up and lotion commercials make us feel like we have crocodile skin if we don’t buy the product. I guess it probably ain’t too much of a jump to threaten us with eternal fire if we don’t enroll in Christianity.

      Thanks for visiting and thanks for your comment.

  8. Really liked your thoughts on the subject. I’ve also asked some of the same questions over time – like “Why do certain people insist on “convertin” or “saving” you? Faith, by definition, is not something you can will or force on yourself. It is not an end result of a logical thought process. You cannot tell yourself – ok, from tomorrow I will believe – and wake up the next day as a believer. So what exactly do these people expect from us?
    I have had the question – “Do you believe in God?” pointed at me, almost like a sword, many times – a lot of times by complete strangers. It is always asked with a weird intensity, bordering on agressivity, like sooo much depends on the answer. I always feel cornered, a little bit shocked. What are they hoping find out about me?
    In my opinion, people who grow up “indoctrined” in a certain religion, build this belief system into their own self-image, and then it becomes a part of them, something they identify with (just like being a fan of a certain football or baseball team). This way, anybody with a different belief system (or lack of it) can be viewed as an enemy, as a threat.

    • Yes, we certainly do internalize a lot of things about our religious upbringings. I’d like to say I’ve cast off the negative aspects of my own religious schooling, but it still catches me sometimes. For example, long after I got married I still had panicky nightmares that someone had seen me kissing my husband – leftovers, I think, from the guilt that was squeezed all over the normal aspects of students’ romantic relationships on the Christian campus where I met my husband.

      I guess for those invested in religious divisions, the “Do you believe in God?” interrogation is the most basic place to start figuring out if you should tolerate the other person.

      Love your response on the impossibility of forcing yourself into faith, from one day to the next.

  9. all people are of equal value….and god is a woman

    • Since I’m officially not sure what I know about God anymore, I can’t speak to his/her gender, but when I really think about it, it seems to me that perhaps God can transcend any idea we humans have about gender, and be neither male nor female…or both. Thanks for your comment.

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