Bodhisattvas, the Burning Bush or My Ghanaian Cousin: what’s your image of God?

Especially at Christmastime, we do a lot of reflecting on the trappings of faith – and the appearance of God.

This essay is adapted from an earlier blog post.

“I’ve Got My Own Religion” read a small pamphlet I found on the bus. According to my best guess, it has a Greek Orthodox priest, a woman in a burqa, a Buddhist monk, and a lady with some kind of cross wrapped in twine (a Wiccan, perhaps?).  Their friendly smiles make the part about the lake of fire, inside the pamphlet, all that much more painful.

“It is not true that all religious beliefs are of equal value,” the booklet 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, expecting these tracts to convert devout non-Christians seems a bit like believing that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would clamor for American citizenship if he picked up materials declaring that the US Constitution is the source of all truth.

I have a hobby of picking these tracts up when I find them around the city.

“Dear Soul,” says one, 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.

For devout non-Christians, agnostics and atheists, I’d venture a guess that biblically-based threats have a bit of a credibility problem.

But pointing out the intellectual fallacies of the faithful isn’t that productive (or original). Since my own upbringing in an insular Christian denomination, I stopped accepting sermons at face value a long time ago. 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. How do we know he was white?

For years, I secretly wondered what it was like for non-white Christians to have Jesus glorified 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. 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 procession of priests from the 1919 dedication of the cathedral in my parents' hometown. It would look the same today - no women.
A procession of priests from the 1919 dedication of the cathedral in my parents’ hometown. It would look the same today – no women.

Many strident opponents of female clergy in my family’s church declare that over all other doctrinal or cultural factors, priests should be men because maleness is essential to our understanding of God. Some ministers of my home church insist that 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 to the congregation.

Several years ago, I began to wonder why it was so important to systematically separate the image of my own body from the image of God. I began to wish I had a spiritual role model whom I could better relate to.

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.

I have no desire to deny God. And I don’t see proof that God exists. But I’m sure of the value of a moral foundation for my life.

I always thought that my home faith (dubbed “the New Church” or Swedenborgianism for Emanuel Swedenborg, the 18th-century philosopher whose theological writings inform its Bible-based doctrine) took a lenient view of my agnostic state. Swedenborg didn’t spout the lake-of-fire stuff. Rather, he wrote that anyone who lives a charitable life according to the faith he or she knows can go to heaven, regardless of denomination.

But apparently I’m on the wrong track.

My long-time friend and high-school classmate, Coleman, grew more certain of his faith as I got more confused. I published a book criticizing the dogma of the Swedenborgian clergy. Coleman enrolled in their theological school and become a pastor.

We have a lot of disagreements, but it doesn’t matter. We get together whenever he’s in town.

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

He presents a series of biblical and Swedenborgian passages that demonstrate the importance of envisioning and acknowledging Jesus Christ to gain entry to 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 said. “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 dealt kindly with me: “agnostic people can repent too.” He calls my attitude a “good starting point” since it’s not an outright rejection of Jesus Christ. I still have the choice to pray to God to “help my unbelief.” Coleman advised me to love the idea of Jesus, and to “want Him to be real.”

But I sense the same flaw that rankles me in the pamphlets I collect. Just as those Christian propagandists assume that excerpted passages of the Bible will be meaningful to non-Christians, my pastor pal assumes my doubts will be excavated by prayer to reveal a native, underlying certainty in the Lord Jesus Christ.

The guilty truth 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 changed.

Coleman believes that even if people like me have moral principles, our spiritual insides are fatally unmoored as long as we don’t consciously pin our faith on Jesus Christ.

Coleman says that unless we view repentance this way, “we can and WILL justify living selfishly.” People like me might “MOSTLY not embrace evil”, but since we don’t have the right bedrock (i.e., the Lord Jesus Christ) for our convictions, we’ll always end up with “wiggle room” to excuse sin.

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.”


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 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. Our annual pageant always needed a local newborn.

(Last year my cousin married a Ghanaian woman and their baby appeared in the manger – you may not be surprised to hear that a tiny black girl was an unusual choice for the role of Jesus at my church.)

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

Earlier this year, I made a 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 greenish-blue female Bodhisattva, was perched in the lotus position on a cushion 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 presence.

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

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/burning 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 reflect patriarchal tradition.) There are probably as many reasons to promote a certain image of God as there are congregations in the world. But I’d never presume to declare who God is inside of you. What qualifies one human being to define God for another human being? Gender? A theological degree? Ordination? Meditation? Revelation?

“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 we 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 identity. 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 reminds me of God.

Happy holidays, readers worldwide – whatever you’re celebrating!

Here I am, Christmas morning 2011. My mom knows how to pick a bathrobe ensemble.
Here I am, Christmas morning 2011. My mom knows how to pick a bathrobe ensemble.


Add yours →

  1. Excellent post, particularly your comment on the perception of god based upon the limits of man’s capabilities. Man’s presumptuousness, arrogance or ignorance, take your pick, limits the perceptions, thus the relevance, of a god. And relying on the bible, a document written by man, the included and excluded contents chosen by a committee of men, is silly.

  2. exactly…and I only wish if church would reallocate all that effort and fund towards a more tolerant world view
    PS: the particular Boddisatva goddess that you mention here, was an ancient pagan(as Bible usually describes) deity of the Himalayas incorporated into unfamiliar Bhramanic Hinduism and later into Buddhism .

    • the boddhisatwa goddess Tara that you mentioned is where i put my faith in. But unlike Sonam Im not a Buddhist. Now imagine muslims praying to Christ; I dont think any western religion has that kind of tolerance. But the ancient Hindu philosophies has worked miracles with differing religions throughout ages and incorporated many beliefs into itself;and that is tolerance. Even muslims converged to form Jainism in India. Lord Buddha is equally worshipped as an incarnation of Lord Krishna. hope you get my point though. all i want to add is tht I enjoy my polythiestic religion and also am going to take this oppurtunity to tell you that out here, Church calls our religion devil worship…

      • Have you read “Life of Pi”? The protagonist is born Hindu but practices Islam and Christianity as well. It’s an interesting book. There are few things more senseless than accusing people of other faiths of worshiping the devil. I think most world religions, at heart, are fundamentally similar. The differences are cosmetic. Intolerance is the tragic outcome of religious practitioners who get too far away from their real doctrines.

  3. jesus is the only god who makes the great miracles in our lyf. I am so happy believing jesus christ as my lord. And am so proud being as christian.

  4. dont know about Pi Patel, whos definitely gonna open himself up in these coming days; but Ive gone through Bible a few times and it does preeches a lot of admirable doctrines. Religions at its core are all similar. But most of them are aiming to be the only world religion. basically inviting intolerance towards the other. which is , yes, a tragic outcome as you put it.

    • There are a lot of lovely doctrines in the Bible. The “golden rule” is my favorite. Now if we could all just stop worrying about what the other guy is doing and practice what we ourselves find meaningful…

  5. Hi Alaina,

    I read your book. Took me a while, but I finished it a couple weeks ago. During the whole first part I kept getting annoyed because you spoke of “the New Church” as if that is the same as “The General Church.” But I got over that, realizing that growing up in the General Church, that’s what they taught you, so what else would you think?

    I grew up in the New Church also, but not in the General Church. And most of what you wrote about in the book as “New Church” teachings about love and marriage were completely foreign to me. I’ve read Conjugial Love my fair share of times . . . and I’m really not sure how the G.C. clergy came up with some of that stuff. It certainly didn’t come from Swedenborg.

    Not all New Church / Swedenborgian people are as fundamentalist as the run-of-the-mill General Church variety of Swedenborgians. I read some of their stuff and I just scratch my head. That is, if I’m not getting embarrassed that this stuff is being put out into the world with a claim that it’s what Swedenborg taught. It gives Swedenborg a bad name.

    As for a requirement that we believe in Jesus in order to be saved, how is that different from non-Swedenborgian fundamentalists, who say the same thing? I think your friend is badly mis-reading and misunderstanding Swedenborg’s meaning in the statements he quotes.

    I believe Swedenborg meant it when he said that people of all religions can be saved if they live a good life according to their own beliefs. Here’s a piece I wrote about it:

    It really doesn’t matter if you were born Christian or not. What matters is whether you follow your own conscience by living according to your own best beliefs, and devote your life to doing good for others and not only for yourself.

    • Thanks for your comment. You’re not the first person to remind me that the General Church does not represent the New Church. Thanks for reading and reflecting on my book. If I ever decide to get back to a regular religious practice, I would probably look pretty deep at some other branches of the New Church. I don’t know how the General Church clergy came up with all that stuff, either. Oh wait, yes I do. A fiercely fearful, sexist and paternalistic tradition.

      I agree with you that interpretations of Swedenborg that demand universal acceptance of Jesus for salvation are fatally flawed. If I’m wrong on that, I guess I’ll find out in the afterlife, if there is one. In the meantime I’ll just try my best to be a decent person.

      I like your thoughtful bent, so I hope you stop by again.

  6. Oh, and for the record, the original Swedenborgian denomination in the United States has been ordaining women since 1975. It also ordains gays and lesbians.

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