What is the right way to speak about God? Theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson asks the question in her book She Who Is. It is a profound question for all Christian believers. The ways we speak about God influence our images of God, our beliefs, our theology. Many, if not most or even all, believers seek to emulate God, attempting to mimic God, modeling our actions to be like God. A few years ago, some Christian believers even wore bracelets with the letters WWJD and a question mark. The letters stood for What would Jesus do? It was intended to be a path for making ethical and moral decisions.
The answer to the question What would Jesus do? depends at least in part in our vision, our image, of God. If we pray to an angry God, then perhaps the answer to the dilemma is anger. If we are asking the question of God whom we understand as domineering, judgmental, or critical, then that might guide our decision. On the other hand, if our image of God is forgiving and compassionate, that might guide us. If our image of God is one who dances and sings and leads us to joy and fellowship, that would lead to yet another set of actions on our part. Our images of God influence our responses and our actions.
Accepting or exploring the notion that it is possible for there to be many possible images of God is radical. It breaks with hundreds of years of theology and philosophy. It challenges the practice of imagining God as masculine, if not male. It challenges the assumption behind northern European artists’ portrayal of God as light-skinned. Maybe God is not sitting on a throne, but is really still healing the ill, feeding the hungry, and visiting the imprisoned, just as Jesus did. European artists seemingly had only one image of God, when, indeed, there are many legitimate images of God all around us: images that include women and hungry people and people of color and the LGBTQ community. Those images are significant for the faith community to identify, explore, and make visible.
For those whose God is exclusively masculine, white, and enthroned, this mastication of ideas and nuances may be difficult. For other believers whose faith seeks understanding, the possibilities are as magnificent and multifaceted as an exquisitely cut diamond. Our images of God work in tandem with the way we speak of God. That is, even if we agree that God is not male, does not have male hormones, and for that matter, does not have human body parts at all, but is more than than any physical material, when we use male nouns (ie, king) or pronouns (he, his) we contribute the image of God in our minds.
For two millennia, Christian leaders, teachers, and theologians have predominantly referred to God in masculine terms. Some have even argued that there is an authority, which tends to be their own interpretation of the Bible, that demands that only masculine terms can be used in reference to God, a white guy at that. They argue that it is blasphemous to use feminine nouns and pronouns to speak about God.
I argue that limiting God to such narrow imagery is the blasphemy, if that argument is the destination. Instead, I propose that God has unlimited facets and that exploring them will bring us closer to the face of God, to the presence of unlimited forgiveness, and to the joy of love beyond all understanding. We will begin the exploration in the next post.