Friday, June 22, 2012

Do You Anthropomorphize God?

I was chopping homegrown tomatoes for a summer dinner, and halfway between kitchen counter and open dining space, my host paused to ask: “Do you anthropomorphize God?” 

God Inviting Christ to Sit on His Right Hand
detail, Pieter de Grebber, 1645, Flanders
Anthropomorphize God? Of course I knew what the term meant. I have graduate degrees in lit, taught freshman writing at three universities. Anthropomorphize: to ascribe human attributes to something not human. Still ...

“I’m not sure what you’re asking.”

“I’m wondering – did you need a father so badly that you anthropomorphized God as your father?”

Ah. Well yes, I’ve written in this blog about God as father, and about His fatherly presence in my life (Song for Our Father , The Lord is Near, The Paradox of Pain,  All Comfort ).  I gave a sermon in my church on the topic several years ago, and anyone who has spent much time with me has probably heard me talk, or pray, or wax vaguely philosophical about God as the only fully reliable, fully present, fully capable parent.

But no. I don’t anthropomorphize God, as I tried to explain while I tossed my salad.

“’Anthropomorphize’ suggests I’m the one ascribing attributes. I’d say, instead, that I’ve tried to take God’s self-revelation seriously. If He says He’s my father, I’ve tried to understand what that meant. If He says He’s going to treat me as His friend, I’ve tried to see what that looks like day to day.”

Our conversation went on, through a few of my stories of God’s engagement in my life and my questioner’s gentle certainty that what I considered dramatic intervention was in fact well-timed coincidence.

The question, of course, comes back to our view of what the Bible is, how we respond to it, and what our relationship is to God Himself.

If the Old and New Testaments are just collections of random stories, a disparate ensemble of theological conjecture, then sure, it’s all anthropomorphization, a projection of our own fears, hopes, frustrations, plastered on an imagined being.

If they’re a series of revelations, records of God’s interaction with humans across a span of time, then it’s something very different. Yes, God is described, and describes Himself, in sometimes human terms. If it’s His own revelation we’d be foolish to ignore those descriptions, yet also foolish to take them at face value. We communicate in words we understand, but those words often fall far short of realities beyond them.

When God speaks, through the prophets, of “forming” the earth, He’s describing a creative act, but even human creative acts are multilayered processes, occurring across time. If I take all I know about creativity and the creative process, the joy, the adventure, the invisible and visible work, the starts, stops, unfolding story, and ascribe that to God, I have only the faintest hint of God as creator.
Mourning Trinity - Throne of God, detail
Robert Campin, South Netherlands, 1445

When He speaks of His compassion, like a mother caring for her chicks, a shepherd watching his sheep, a father welcoming a wandering child, I may picture the best parent I know, the most welcoming, affirming, nurturing adult I can think of, and I’ve just caught a shadow of the love of God, the smallest glimpse of what His love might be.

When He speaks of His justice and describes Himself as a king who will rule justly, I can read that through the lens of my own experience of misused power and arrogant authority and hope I can somehow bribe Him to take my side. Or I can acknowledge that what I know of “right,” of true justice, of authority used on behalf of a kingdom of grace and goodness, is deeply flawed. I can set aside my small views of petty human power, recognize that what I believe of justice and goodness, is just a fraction of what God has in mind, and learn to trust a vision larger than my own.

No, I don’t anthropomorphize God. I don’t imagine Him like myself, or like any human I’ve known. I’d flip it around: I theomorphize myself. I try to imagine myself more like Him, try to imagine a world ruled by someone far wiser, far more gracious, far more compassionate than what I’ve seen.

When I was struggling to learn what a parent should be, I asked God to show me Himself as parent, to help me understand His patience, care, delight in me, and to help me show the same. It’s the work of a lifetime, but a joyful enterprise.

When I’ve struggled to respond to those who’ve used power to harm me, I’ve asked God to show me His own reconciling justice, and I’ve found strength to forgive, but also strength to stand firm for something beyond simple acquiescence. I catch glimpses of something beyond the hurtful back-and-forth of human power. God’s plan in this is much grander than I could describe, but I see bright glimpses, and rejoice.
God the Father, Pompeo Giralamo Batoni,
1779, Italy

David, king of Israel, “servant of the Lord,” worked hard to know God, and to become more like Him. He messed up royally along the way but continued in his pursuit of God, and in his passion to see God more clearly. Some of his songs describe God in human terms, some move past the human to a global, even cosmic vision. We start with what we know, but the reality is far beyond.

We can try to pull God back to our own terms, our own scale, our own human definitions, imagining He is on “our” side, imagining He endorses our platform, shares our agenda, wants exactly what we want.

Or we can ask God to help us grow past our own human limitations into something bigger, to make us participants in his all-encompassing justice, his gracious provision. We can try to make Him more like us, or ask to be made more like Him. I know which choice I'm praying for.

Your love, Lord, reaches to the heavens,
    your faithfulness to the skies.
Your righteousness is like the highest mountains,
    your justice like the great deep.
    You, Lord, preserve both people and animals.
How priceless is your unfailing love, O God!
    People take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house;
    you give them drink from your river of delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
    in your light we see light.
 (Psalm 36, a song of David, servant of the Lord) 
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