In her book “The Birth Of The Living God”, psychiatrist Ana-Marie Rizzuto examines where our mental images of God come from, what they are based on, and how they affect our lives. Freud had argued that belief in God is based on our earliest childhood memories and unconscious representations of our fathers – and based on this had rejected all forms of religion as wish-fulfilment. As an object-relations theorist, Rizzuto takes a different view. She believes that we relate to the outside world mostly through the mental shorthand of internal representations, and suggests that human beings are hard-wired for an internal representation of God. So she asked hundreds of subjects to draw their personal image of God – for many of her patients, God looked a lot like a judge, for others, God was best expressed as a warm sun, for some, God was a smiley face or a warm hug while for others, God was a cosmic-sized scowl – but invariably Rizutto found that the mental picture we have of God is a hugely important factor in how we view ourselves, other people, and the world we live in. People whose earliest experiences are of a stable and loving home are more likely to form an unconscious picture of God that is a source of internal strength and optimism, but on the other hand people whose earliest experiences are harsh or unloving can develop an unconscious idea of God that leads them to be judgemental and unloving as well. Rizutto is arguing that our images of God are not arbitrary but drawn from a deep reality, but at the same time, her work raises a troubling question. How much does my picture of God represent what God is really like, and how much might it represent what I am like?
At the Clergy School a couple of weeks ago we were privileged to have a couple of world-class Bible scholars addressing us. Because they came from very different traditions and backgrounds there was a lot they didn’t agree on – they gave us as clergy a very useful model of how to disagree creatively and respectfully – but there was one particular point of convergence that gave me some food for thought, and it was this: that the Bible doesn’t just have one picture of God, but a bewildering variety of images of God, some tender and maternal, some fatherly and protective, but others, like the one we heard about in our reading from Isaiah this morning, downright terrifying. It seems the God of light and life- the compassionate, intimate and nurturing God – the forgiving, understanding God - can’t be separated from the God of darkness – the avenging, wrathful God, the God that the prophet Jeremiah describes as an enemy- the destroyer of worlds that Hinduism names as Shiva. Both of these images are in the Bible, and that can be a problem for us when we try to reconcile Biblical images of God with the God of our own faith and experience. Because it seems we can’t pick and choose, we can’t just choose the idea of God that appeals to us, and we need to hold both in some sort of creative tension.
On Trinity Sunday lots of people come to church expecting a definition. Well?? - how can we actually believe in God as one God yet three Persons? And preachers, traditionally, feel under a fair bit of pressure. Trinity Sunday has us speculating about the internal life of God, and that’s no small matter. Lucky I’m going on holidays tomorrow!
So, I’m going to focus not on what God is like in Godself, but on how we experience God. What it might mean for us to take seriously Rizutto’s observation that we grow to resemble the God we believe in.
In the first reading we hear the prophet Isaiah telling of his vision of the Lord, when he finds himself commissioned to be a prophet. It is an awesome, even terrifying, vision. God, seated on an enormous high throne, dwarfs everything on earth. God is surrounded by Seraphim, bizarre and wondrous creatures (which, if you take the meaning of the Hebrew word literally, would have been some kind of flying snakes) who call out constantly in the words of worship, declaring God to be Holy! Holy! Holy! And how does this vision affect Isaiah? Well, immediately, and quite reasonably, he assumes that he’s cactus. His number’s up. He feels like he’s experiencing a nuclear explosion from its epicentre - an exhilarating experience but one that you know is going to be your last. Why does he feel like that? Because the vision makes Isaiah horribly conscious of his own sinfulness and he’s suddenly confronted with such awesome holiness that he assumes it can only burn him up like a feather in a furnace. And then in his vision the refining fire is brought to him, in the form of a coal from the altar, but instead of burning him up he is purified by it, his sinfulness has been burned away so he can be fit to be God’s messenger.
The reading we heard from Paul’s letter to the Romans gives us a completely different view from the other end of the spectrum of experience of God. Totally opposite. Far from experiencing God as terrifying, Paul speaks of us being adopted as beloved children into God’s family He compares our experience of God to a toddler running excitedly to its parents yelling “Daddy! Mummy!” This ‘Daddy’ cry is interesting, because although Paul writes in Greek, he brings in a Hebrew word here, the word ‘Abba’ which it seems Jesus also used when he prayed or talked about God. A colleague commented to me a while ago that he never quite understood how radical that word ‘Abba’ really was - until one day when he was standing in a bank queue and he saw a little child, maybe about four years old, running up to a solemn old Jewish grandfather yelling “Abba! Abba!” He said, ‘this verse in Romans 8 was illustrated right in front of my eyes’. Paul’s telling us that with God we can be just like that little kid - excited and joyous and totally confident that we will be gathered up in big warm loving arms and hear the words, “I love you, my child.”
So who’s right, Isaiah or Paul? Which experience of God is the more real, the more true to who God is? Maybe both. Maybe you can’t pin the experience of God down and predict how God is going to be encountered at any given time. And maybe we see the same thing in the way people encountered Jesus. “If you’ve seen me,” Jesus said, “you’ve seen the Father.” It’s not that we read Jesus according to some pre-existing idea of what God is like, it is more that we work out what God is like on the basis of what we have seen in Jesus. And when we think about it, in the New Testament we see a whole range of responses to Jesus, responses ranging from something a bit like Isaiah’s experience of God in the Temple, to Paul’s intimate experience of God as ‘Abba’.
The first time Simon Peter met Jesus he reacts pretty much the same as Isaiah in the Temple. He falls to his knees and says, “Get away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Peter felt like he was naked – exposed - and way too close to the fire, and like if he didn’t get some distance he just might not survive the experience. But then, on the other hand, there was a woman who apparently had every reason to feel herself a sinner, who when she first encountered Jesus she walked into the middle of a respectable dinner party and fell down crying and began massaging his feet. Sounds to me like this woman would have related much more to Paul’s image of loving arms that you could hide in and know you were safe.
I guess, when it comes down to it, we need the full range of images of God that the Bible offers us – the awesome, transcendent God – the holiness and Otherness of God that provokes the reaction of holy fear in us – as well as St Paul’s image of the tender & loving God. Because our experience of God is not only determined by who God is, but by also by who we are and how we react in God’s presence. The baggage we bring along with us from our past is different. The whole range of ways of reacting to God is right there in the Bible – how we hear the stories of our faith depends on who we are. Which means that our personal images of God – like the images of God we find in the Bible – tell us something first and foremost about our own divided and contradictory nature. The tension is not in God, but in us.
In their book, ‘Good goats’, Sheila, Matthew and Steve Linn write about how negative images of God can cause real pain in people’s lives, and they give some simple advice for healing unhelpful ideas about God – ‘just remember’, they tell us, ‘that God loves you at least as much than the one person in the world who loves you the most’
So I can’t help asking myself, what if at the end of all things I find myself in God’s presence and discover that the judgement of God is nothing more or less than that – in the presence of God’s holiness, unconditional forgiveness and love – I simply can’t help but acknowledge my own vindictiveness and selfishness. What if, in other words, the only real judgement is the one I pass on myself? What if the scariest thing about God is the demand that that much love places on us – on how we live our own lives?
Actually, it doesn’t really matter whether you understand the Trinity or not – according to St Patrick it’s something to do with clover-leaves. Because when it comes down to it, God isn’t a problem to be solved but a relationship that needs to be lived. The doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that God is a community of love and holiness that – in some way we can’t comprehend but can experience – includes us. And that’s the good news.