MAKING HUMAN SENSE OF GOD
by John Wijngaards, Mission Today, Spring 1994
HAVE you ever tried seeing yourself through your dog’s eyes? As your best friend it can share your moods and a measure of your life. But there is much it will never grasp. How will it understand your preference for Labour or the Tories? Or the meaning of your child’s baptism? Or why you enjoy watching Coronation Street on the telly? Dogs think in categories such as meat, territory, playing, who-is-boss? and going for a walk.
I do not want to scandalise you, but we are somewhat in the same boat when trying to understand God. Obviously, we live on a higher plane than dogs do and God treats us as free and responsible agents. In other ways, however, the comparison holds good. God towers infinitely above us and we can only make sense of him by using our limited human ways of thinking. We should remember this when reading Scripture.
The words “Our Father who art in heaven” conjure up, for most of us, the picture of God as a powerful, but kindly parent. But one friend of mine keeps telling me that the title “Father” has permanently turned him off God. He himself has had a very strict father whose almost only contact with his children consisted in imposing prohibitions and doling out punishments. The last thing he wants now is to have a father.
I am taking this example to make an important observation. Everything we say about God is couched in imagery. Some of it is right on target, some of it is not. We have to treat images carefully and take them with a pinch of salt.
Allow me to talk a little more about images themselves. I want to pick them apart for you and show how they work.
Among the Dusun in Malaysia, where many of our Mill Hill missionaries used to work, the highest praise a man could get was the remark, “You are a pig!” The reason is that pigs are greatly admired for their strength, courage and economic value in Dusun society.
This unusual example illustrates what is true of every image. Part of it applies: it is the point of the image. For instance, when I am a Dusun I think of courage in the case of pigs. Part of it does not apply, such as a pig’s delight to wallow in muck.
For us, in the UK, just the opposite is true. When we say, “He’s a pig!”, the point lies in the muck, not in the courage.
All this, believe it or not, becomes very important when we speak about God. Since we use human language everything we say about God is image and, as we have seen, images are partly right and partly wrong and always incomplete. To use the classical term, we use analogies. We see God through human eyes.
When we worship the sacred Heart of Jesus, we celebrate his divine and human love. We do not mean for a moment that his heart was holier than any other part of his body. The Assamese Catholics in Northern India have a devotion to Jesus’ Sacred Liver, because for them the liver is the symbol of human tenderness.
God is just as much a mother as a father to us. The image is frequently used in Scripture (Isaiah 49:15) and may speak more to some people. God is also presented as our lover (Song of Solomon 2:8-10) or our husband (Hosea 2:2-20).
When we think of God as Almighty, or King, or Judge, we stress certain features of his unspeakable fullness, but we obscure others. God is almighty, but also vulnerable as he showed by dying for us on the cross. God is king but he is also friend. Though a judge, he is always ready to forgive.
If some image of God frightens us, we should ask: Why?
Perhaps, we are upset by elements in it that do not apply. And why not reflect on fresh images of God? St Martin of Tours met God as a beggar. Incredible? Unworthy of God? Or is it an image of God to remember when we are asked to donate for people in need?
The most powerful image Scripture uses to express God is “love”. God is Love (I John 4:8). Our deepest, warmest, richest human experiences capture best what he is like. Isn’t that all we need to know?