How our images of God help and hurt

There’s a very provocative article by Wesley Wildman and Stephen Chapin Garner posted on the Alban Institute’s site. It discusses the harm that our over-attachment to certain images of God can cause. They point the finger at both “sides” of the contemporary church.

From the article:

“The Bible’s striking images of God collectively express a persistent refusal that God can be captured in a consistent set of human concepts. They also affirm the spiritual practice of imaginatively engaging God through diverse images—sometimes heartwarming and sometimes disturbing.

[…]We are drawn to particular images at certain times and for certain reasons. There is an important difference between rigid attachment to particular God images and the changing psychological realities of the developing human life. When we are young we need concrete images of God to make the divine reality tangible; that is quite appropriate. Throughout our lives we rely on images to articulate and nurture our relationship with God. Such limitations are not a problem in themselves. Picturing God in such a way that we can relate to God is what makes religious life important. God is a loving father or mother, in that we believe we can trust ourselves to God completely. God is a friend or confidant in that we believe God knows our thoughts and needs before we utter them, and it is safe to share our deepest longings with God in prayer. God is judge and avenger, in that we believe that the sin and injustice of the world will encounter a divine reckoning. Our working images of God are tailored to our particular needs for God and to our creative, yet limited, ability to imagine that which we believe but cannot fully conceive. Thus, it is developmentally appropriate and psychologically intelligible to use God images to engage the incomprehensible and image-breaking divine reality.

The problem arises when we begin to think that our favorite image of God is the only one or the best one. We lose track of the contrast between God’s infinity and our finite humanity. This tendency may be part of the human condition, but it is a trap that mature Christians in every generation learn to avoid. Unfortunately, the history of Christianity is filled with examples of people, sometimes very influential people, who have not reached this level of maturity. Liberals, evangelicals, conservatives, biblical literalists, fundamentalists—all of us—tend to assume we have the inside track in a race to understand God. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are certain they are right. The Southern Baptist Convention believes it has the truth well in hand. Bishop Spong knows he is right. The Jesus Seminar thinks it is right. David Koresh believed he was right.”

Read the full article here.

The article ends by reminding us that over attachment to a specific image is probably as close to idolatry as anything else we’re likely to encounter in the contemporary church.

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