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What is your image of God?

Luke 11:1-13 invites us to reflect on our mental image of God. A mental image is an internal representation of the world. We form these internal representations over time based upon our perceptions and experiences. For example, we all have mental images of “summer” and “winter,” formed over many years of experiences of the naturally occurring patterns in the weather. Similarly, we all have mental images of a wide variety of things, based upon our perceptions and experiences — schools, grocery stores, hospitals,marriage, the government, the legal system and on and on.
          
Young children do not yet have these mental images. They form them, gradually, as they have experiences and interact with their environment. It is interesting to note our mental images vary somewhat  based upon our experiences. For example, the mental image of “winter” is likely different for someone that grew up in and lives in Alaska as compared to someone who grew up in and lives in Arizona or New Mexico. It is also interesting to observe that one way to think about “mental health” is the degree to which our internal mental images correspond with “objective” reality. A  mentally healthy person will have internal images of grocery stores, hospitals, the legal system, etc., that are relatively accurately, whereas a less mentally healthy person will have images that are distorted, if not completely inaccurate. Finally, it is interesting to note that our mental images shape our behavior. How many of us begin to “prepare for winter” even when the weather is still warm and there is no hint of winter in the air?

We all have mental images of God. Like our other mental images , our images of God have been shaped by our perceptions and experiences. These images may be more or less “accurate” (i.e., we may have relatively accurate images of God, or relatively distorted images of God). One sign of genuine growth in the spiritual life is that our image of God gradually changes, and becomes more “accurate.” We may begin to let go of childhood images, perhaps of God as a kind old man with a white beard, like Santa Claus; or perhaps as a mean, punitive judge who is ready and waiting to punish us for every mistake or imperfection, no matter how minor. 

But, we are perhaps at a loss here. What is a more “accurate” image of God? What image should be developing and forming as a result of genuine growth in our spiritual lives? Our Gospel reading for today gives us some insight into Jesus' mental image of God. As Jesus has proven to be a meaningful and helpful model of human behavior in so many dimensions of life, perhaps we can also consider his experience as a meaningful and helpful model for us in this dimension. Perhaps we can hold out the mental image of God that Jesus had as the general direction we are moving toward as we grow in the spiritual life. 

And, what was the image that Jesus had? We see in our reading today that Jesus referred to God as 'Abba.' Abba is an Aramaic word that  most closely translates as “Daddy.” It signifies the close, intimate relationship of a child with her father , as well as the childlike trust that a young child puts in her “daddy.” Later in the reading Jesus states:  What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? If you who are imperfect, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”

So, Jesus' image of God was as an intimate, caring, gracious and loving parent. Consider, for a moment, the very best parent that you  have ever known; someone who might exhibit to an exemplary degree the combination of unconditional love, appropriate affection, accurate empathy, deep compassion, never failing patience,  gentle encouragement — all of those personal characteristics and traits that are part of exemplary parenting.  Jesus' image of God is that God is like that person, and more.  

Now, let us each consider our own image of God. And, then, let us each consider how close our image of God is to Jesus' image of God. And, realizing that Jesus' image of God was shaped through his experiences (such at his baptism, when he experienced God communicating that Jesus was God's beloved child, in whom God was well pleased), let us each ask God to give us the types of experiences that we need so that our image of God may continue to evolve, and gradually become more and more like Jesus' image of God.

About Thomas Altepeter

  Rev. Thomas Altepeter is an Ecumenical Catholic priest and pastor of St. Clare Ecumenical Catholic Community in Spokane.

He is also a licensed psychologist and has previously served as pastor of an ECC community in Wisconsin, been employed as a university professor, served as a director of a large behavioral health department, and worked in private practice as a psychologist.

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2 comments

  1. As an atheist, I think I have a particularly useful view of this question, believe it or not.

    I was taught to believe in a personal authority-figure God same as most people. I realized somewhere in my early teens that this idea didn’t hold water (I’ll spare you the common atheist arguments).

    Anyway, since I stopped believing in God, I have become more and more fascinated by belief in God. It’s sort of like an anthropologist watching another culture. As an outsider, sometimes it’s easier to see things more clearly. Or at least to see things that most people miss.

    One of the things that I notice about people’s conception of God is that God almost always agrees completely with their version of morality. If a person is conservative, then God is into punitive justice, hates gay sex, is the divine authority and the source of or civil liberties etc. etc. If a person is liberal then God is into distributive justice, is warm and nurturing and loving. It seems pretty clear to me that whatever your idealized sense of morality is, that’s what God is too.

    Another thing I notice about the idea of God is that people get their noses ALLLLLL bent out of shape if you start trash-talking their God. They really take it personally. This can even show up as moral outrage when you simply say things like “oh, I don’t believe that,” as if saying that I don’t believe what you believe is some sort of insult. This thin-skinned attitude toward God clearly has nothing to do with the content of the person’s beliefs. After all, if you view God as all powerful, why does he need you to defend him? No, it seems like this is a very personal issue that a lot of people have about being disagreed with.

    My impression here is that people are thin-skinned because the idea of God does a lot of psychological and social work for most people. Stuff like “I’m a good person because I believe” or “I’m saved from the consequences of my moral failings because Jesus died for my sins.” Add to this the fact that most people belong to groups that cohere around ideas of the divine, and that we use these groups in order to get our needs met, and you can see that the idea of God is a great means to an end for most people.

    There are two more big psychological payoffs that I see in the belief in God. The first is moral authority. MANY people assume that you have to believe in a deity in order to be a good person. I can spout all sorts of pro-social statistics about atheists, and we will still be viewed as unwelcome outsiders by most people, simply because we don’t believe. Second there is the spiritual experience. Human beings seem to be able to use stories, rituals, practices and relationships to evoke a sort of psycho-active process. Personally I get this experience from contemplations of science and a meditative practice, but I think that most people use their relationship with God (whether or not he exists) as a way of accessing transcendent experiences.

    Given these observations and what little I know about brain science, I tend to think that God is a symbolic representation of the person’s own psychology. We know so little about how consciousness works, but we do know that most verbal, linear and discursive psychological processes work in the left hemisphere of the brain. The right hemisphere is non-verbal, and is devoted to intuitive processing of vast stores of interconnected information. The right brian’s job is to make sense and meaning out of the world. Give that people with right temporal lobe seizures report intense religious experiences, and given that the right brain seems to know nothing of time, space, but that it’s REALLY good at understanding relationships (including moral relationships). This seems like a likely place for an “all powerful, all knowing, all moral” deity to reside.

    So there you go. Those are my thoughts on God. Well…. The IDEA of God, anyway.

  2. I would tend to put the belief / action in the opposite order. If a person holds to a Christian God-centered world view then he will tend to exhibit more of those conservative values you mention, whereas if one holds to a more liberal, man centered world view he will be unable to have a logical argument against almost any kind of behavior since it is merely HIS opinion. Jesus said that out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks, belief determines action.

    Also, I agree with much of what the article tries to convey about God’s character, Jesus did not need to form a mental image of God, because He was, and is God Himself. And in His prayer to the Father in John 17, He acknowledged His memory of His eternal existence with the Father in verse 5. Don’t mean to be nit- picky, but I have a conviction that the Word should be handled accurately and with precision.

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