by Theresa King
When I was a very little girl growing up in metropolitan Chicago-Cicero to be exact-I used to follow my mother out to the alley at the call of the “Ragzanarn Man.” For a long time I could not understand what he sang as he prodded his old horse to pull the dilapidated wagon through the alleys. Mom told me it was “rags and iron” he called out, inviting the housewives to bring their recyclables to him. Women brought out stacks of newspapers, old clothes, rags, broken bits of metal, rusty utensils, old pots. He paid them in cash. His gnarled hand would disappear into the crusted pocket of his sagging pants and pull out greasy bills and piles of coin, like some American Fagin, and carefully count out the trade.
I was afraid of the man. He had a long white beard and a wrinkled face. He was dirty and smelly, and his wagon was piled with the discards of households from all over the city. He sat up high on the driving shelf of the wagon holding a long stick with which he beat his poor, tired horse. Once I wanted to pet the horse, but he snarled a warning to keep me away, and from that day on I watched him fearfully from behind the garbage cans or be
tween the slats of blinds at my bedroom window.
When I started kindergarten, Sister Miriam unfolded a large, bright picture of an old man with a long white beard, sitting high up on a big chair, holding a long golden stick. She said, “This, children, is God.” I was horrified.
Later I learned that that awful man was our Father. The two concepts did not match. Father meant Daddy, and Daddy was kind and jovial, smelled good and hugged well, had a neat little mustache instead of a long beard, rolled down the hill with us at the park, baked us cherry pies and pancakes, sang beautifully on a stage. He was so far away from the old man with a long beard sitting up high that I dismissed that God image as one of the few mistakes Sister Miriam would ever make.
By the end of second grade I knew everything there was to know about God, especially about the God called Jesus. He was very handsome in spite of his long hair, spoke mostly in stories, and somehow lived behind the small golden door on the church altar. We were careful not to make him upset by being bad and secretly tried not to become involved with his Father in any way. We learned about the Holy Ghost, which was shown to be a white bird and made no sense at all, and about Mary, Jesus’s mother, who was very kind and gentle, but also rather sad. We could tell her anything and she would understand. We were strictly cautioned that we could pray to her, but it had to be different from the way we prayed to Jesus because, after all, she was not God.
Years of theology and thousands of sermons later, the basis of God language did not appear to be much different from those early impressions. Much ado was made about the “one, true God” as opposed to the many “gods” of the “pagans.” Yet all around me there was a multiplicity of “true” God images. There was devotion to the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There was devotion to the Sacred Heart, the Infant of Prague, the Crucified Savior, the Good Shepherd, Christ the King, the Resurrected Lord, the Almighty Father, the Creator, the Holy Spirit, the merciful Judge. There were innumerable possibilities for devotion to Mary: the obedient young handmaiden, the Mother with the baby, the Queen of Heaven, the apparitions of Lourdes, Fatima, Guadalupe. There was devotion to the Holy Family, to Christ as Eucharistic Lord, Suffering Servant, Glorified Redeemer. The possibilities were endless. Each of these God images had its own devotion: retreats and novenas, statues and holy cards, pictures to hang on the wall, special prayers in the prayer books, churches and schools bearing their names.
I noticed that the image of God was directly related to the personality and lifestyle of the believer. I watched childless old nuns lovingly dress the statue of the Child Jesus in bejeweled silks and satins; cerebral college professors spend hours before the altar contemplating God as bread; celibate priests speak of the Virgin Mary with tears in their eyes and with words other men reserved for romance. A casual observer would be hard-pressed to recognize these images as representing the same God, much less the same religious tradition.
Being part of the tradition, however, it was natural to me to see God expressed in so many ways. It was not a problem to notice that a devotee who gently kissed the bleeding hand on the statue of the suffering Christ had no feelings, nor even patience, for the devotion to Christ the King. The Baby Jesus was not the same as The Final Judge; the Creator of Eden was not the Warlord of Israel.
Despite Church canons and religious doctrine, I realized that believers secretly imaged God in very personal ways. We all filled a need in our lives with the God we wanted. We all made God in our own image.
And since that was the case, then why were the images of one religion worthy, in fact solely true, while others were false gods? Who decided that? And on what basis?
Once the questions appeared, the answers had to be sought, and sought with a vengeance. God became a curiosity, a mystery to be solved.
In India my searches found a plethora of God images that pulled at my heart, or turned me away in revulsion. There were as many images as in Christianity, many of them similar, and some as difficult to understand. In Nepal and Tibet, the harsh landscape and struggling lives of the people manifested in the many violent images of the divine. In Mexico, familiar Christian God images were unselfconsciously combined with ancient Indian theology. In Eastern Europe the same images mixed with unnamed exotic overtones, and the face of the Black Madonna everywhere superseded that of Christ. In Japan everything seemed to be God-at least deified-and over all sat the still, imposing image of Lord Buddha, used as a model or object of worship by millions.
It became obvious to me that our collective experience forms our image of God. The symbols of a particular place-whether desert or rain forest or Midwestern farm-together with group values and beliefs about the meaning of life and death, paint an image of divinity for each culture, every group within cultures. Variations are made according to the particular psychological needs of the group, and sometimes of the individual. These images are strengthened by emotion: the beauty of art and architecture, ritual and music. They make us loath to change any part of a belief system that ties us so keenly to family, childhood, friendship, holiday celebrations.
The freer individuals feel in the play of life, however, the freer they are to change the group’s divinity for their own use. Our childish notions of God usually evolve to more sophisticated images as we mature. We learn more about scriptural exegesis and institutional power, or we discover thought patterns that no longer serve us, or perhaps we are enthralled by the beliefs of a culture other than our own. Then the task of sorting out God images begins in earnest. This does not happen easily, nor automatically. For some, the idea of questioning traditional beliefs, ideas, or images is too risky; it is easier to join the ranks of those who defend the status quo. But often it appears that the divine itself forces us to acknowledge that we need look again at what we think about God.
Years ago I worked in a large yoga institute as a staff member. Our spiritual teacher was also the chief administrator of the organization. Whenever staff members became complacent, either in the running of the office or in their spiritual development, our teacher would make an outrageous remark, or abruptly disturb the daily schedule, or move staff around at lightning speed. A friend in my office began to call our teacher The Cosmic Toilet Flusher, explaining that whenever everything is calm and quiet, he comes along and pushes a little handle casting all the peace into a maelstrom of activity and confusion to move us out of our complacency. I thought the term was also an apt image for God.
Belief in God is not an idle pastime. Our God image makes us do things. We may be compelled to serve the homeless, work in a hospice, send money to charity, march in a demonstration, write books, join a discussion group, raise a child. Our God image also makes us think things. It leads us to think about ourselves in particular ways, about our place in the cosmos, our delight or disappointment in our gender or our social role. It leads us to think about others in compassion and understanding or condemnation. It forms our judgment of wrongdoers, the breadth or narrowness of our vision for community. The way we think about God directly influences the way we think about ourselves and others. It is the fulcrum on which the community balances, the scale upon which actions are weighed.
That is why communities of God believers can kill members in his name; why “righteous” countries can go to war to claim land or secure raw materials, why women can be beaten by their husbands, why lawbreakers can be punished, why the sexual life of leaders can label them unfit for politics, why hard work is glorified, why workers among the poor are called saints by some and troublemakers by others, why some groups call an act sin and others call it a mistake, why death is feared or welcomed, why illness is a divine reckoning or a gift for self-knowledge, why tolerance and love of neighbor are automatic or one of the hardest struggles on the face of the earth.
In London, at the Museum of Mankind, I learned of a wonderful divine image that haunts me still. The Sea Goddess of various Eskimo groups tangles up the fish, seals, and walruses in her long, flowing hair, and holds them at the bottom of the sea as if in a net. When the people can find no food, they apologize to the Goddess for offending her and beg her to comb out her hair, thus freeing the animals for hunting.
The image of God performing such an everyday task as combing her long hair is a wonderful juxtaposition of intimacy and power, immanence and transcendence. It reminds us that God is far beyond us, but also very near, able to totally ignore us or able to hear our every word when we call. It touches on the question of the negative side of God. It speaks to me of what I call the “human quandary of the two Gods: the God We Want and the God That Is.”
The God We Want is imaged in all the religions of the world, in the minds of millions of creatures attempting to know and name their creator. This God is called Mother, Father, Friend, Brother, Lover, Lord. This God knows our thoughts, keeps us from danger, sends grace to guide us. This God is as close as the next breath, as immanent as our own heartbeats.
The God That Is is not imaginable. It is the absolute totality of consciousness; the transcendent being beyond the ability of the mind to know; the thought beyond all thought; the image beyond all power to imagine; the form that does not exist; that Living Force which subequatorial Africans insist has no face, but whose power is everywhere; that Origin, the Tantrics tell us, which spins out universes in a constant creation and destruction beyond time and space; the incomprehensible ground of all being; the self-absorbent Source from which everything flows and into which everything will inevitably return.
Historically, human beings have named as God anything which was more than they. It may have been another human being, bigger, stronger, of a different skin color. To ancient natural cultures it may have been the soldier who appeared carrying a blazing gun. To fearful or superstitious cultures, it may have been a stranger who could accurately predict the future or cure the sick. We keep expanding our definition of God because we keep reclaiming more and more of what it means to be human. We are the gods of a thousand years ago.
Now that we and our neighbors are becoming a global community, claiming our individual differences and sharing more and more in modern technologies and trade products, what will the new collective experience name as the image of God? What will God look like to this multicultural group which will surely share earth values and human concerns as we travel deeper and deeper through the realms of space? And what will God look like after eons of planetary interaction?
That God image will certainly be many-sided. I am always suspicious of people who are all kind, or spiritual leaders who are only sweet with no fire, or of a God that is one-sided! Life is a play of opposites. It is a constant balance of two sides. I think wisdom, like God, exists at the point where the two ends meet. Just as we struggle day after day to balance our known and unknown parts, our feminine and masculine traits, our good and evil sides, our openness and our fears, our past and our future, so we must struggle to understand the God We Want in light of the fact that it is not necessarily the God That Is.
If we are lucky, reality has a way of imposing itself upon us whenever we think we have life (and God) all figured out. Reality does violence to our simplistic naiveté, to our need for life to be a certain way, to the fear that sends us into hiding against risk. This reality is also God. It is called the Mother by cultures which have long realized that destruction is a holy and valid face of God. This Mother brings death as well as life. She destroys as well as creates. She is the bringer of both illusion and pure truth, our twin tools in the ceaseless task of remembering who we are and where we are going. She smashes our preconceived notions and makes us teeter on the edge of growth and maturity, knowing and not knowing, until we can find the truth that exists within good and evil both. She forces us to grow up.
When I was young
I wrote sweet love poems
to the Mother of the Universe
sending performed lyrics
weaving garlands of fragile blossoms
sung in ecstasy.
But now She crouches beside me
cackling at the pretty words
tearing the perfumed pages
and weighing each sweetness
on the edge of her long, sharp nail
red with blood.
Some day we will know God. We will not have to guess about the divine image, just as we will not have to wonder what else lies hidden in our unconscious minds. What thoughts will we think when we learn to use the 90% of our brains as yet untapped? What expansion will occur when we meet life forms superior to our own? How will our lives change when we clearly remember everything that ever happened to us on our long journey through history and through life? What will God look like then?
In the meantime, we struggle under the task of finding meaning in our lives, preparing for a swiftly-changing future, and dealing with our historical patterns. God, of course, is with us; we know that. We just don’t know what it means.
Perhaps the search for the face of God is a planned part of the evolution of humanity. Perhaps we move through time from image to image, learning about the God We Want, revering tradition, honoring revealed scripture, carrying out the terms of the holy covenants as we understand them, while we are being moved- sometimes imperceptively, sometimes quite drastically-to the next step of the plan towards the God That Is.
Every group does the same, sometimes overlapping findings, sometimes stepping into new concepts quite alone. We cannot do otherwise. We must be true to our own inner promptings, to that divine spark that pushes us to question, to grapple with the unknowable, to be curious about the forbidden. It is God itself that asks the questions because it is God itself that is the answer.
Perhaps eventually, after all the questions have been asked and all the secrets laid open to the light, the pairs of opposites-birth and death, good and evil, light and darkness, sin and goodness, love and war, creation and annihilation-will be found to be the same. Perhaps then the many faces of God will truly reveal the God That Is.