Images of God (August, 2014)

Story for All Ages "Kitten’s First Full Moon," by Kevin Henkes

That man has a kindred nature with God,
and may bear most important and ennobling relations to him,

seems to me to be established by a striking proof. 
This proof you will understand, by considering, for a moment,

how we obtain our ideas of God. 
Whence come the conceptions
which we include under that august name? 
Whence do we derive our knowledge
of the attributes and perfections
which constitute the Supreme Being? 
I answer, we derive them from our own souls. 
The divine attributes are first developed in ourselves,
and thence transferred to our Creator. 
The idea of God, sublime and awful as it is,
is the idea of our own spiritual nature,
purified and enlarged to infinity. 
In ourselves are the elements of the Divinity.

William Ellery Channing (1828)

Song #23 Bring Many Names


In his book Love and Death, Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church wrote

When people tell me proudly that they don't believe in God, I ask them to tell me a little about the God they don't believe in, for I probably don't believe in him either.

Let me tell you a little bit about the God I don't believe in.

When I was a child, my grandmother was fun to play with. She dressed up in costumes with me, and brought me picture books. Her house smelled of coffee and bacon; her Bible was swaddled in a worn book cover knitted from black and purple yarn with metallic silver threads.

From the beginning, she took it upon herself to get me “saved.” When I was old enough to read, she gave me a little pouch of Bible verses on cards to memorize; she saw to it that I attended vacation Bible school in the summer; she described how misdeeds and unbelief are punished in Hell and how Satan tempts and tricks us. My beloved grandmother assured me that God was watching everything I did, everywhere I went, day and night.

I did not find this comforting. I imagined God following me into the bathroom, seeing me undressed, watching me sleep, reading my thoughts. I wondered if there was anywhere I could be safe from God’s prying eyes and His judgment, some shelter He couldn’t see through, like maybe inside the car, since it was made of metal. I stopped believing in it long, long ago, but the image of this judgmental, intrusive, authoritarian God lives on in my memory, and I couldn’t say it hasn’t played a role in forming my spirit.

Let's take a moment to recognize that Unitarian Universalists hold many diverse religious beliefs: about the place of humankind in the universe, the afterlife, revelation, God, and everything else. Also, different traditions have very different ideas about divine beings. Some believe in multiple faces of God or multiple deities. Others, such as Islam, imagine God without any face at all.

I make no assumptions about the backgrounds of people in here today. My own heritage is white Anglo Protestant, which happens to be the dominant tradition among Unitarian Universalists, as well as of United States culture generally. The image of God I hold—of the God I don't believe in—stems from that upbringing.

In simply rejecting negative models and patterns from the past, we risk calling forth their shadows or mirror images. So how about this: instead of focusing on a negative image of the God we don't believe in, we can resolve to seek and cultivate images of the Divine that align with our personal values and our Unitarian Universalist Principles. Exploring our notions about God potentially contributes to our spiritual growth as individuals. Theological reflection is part of our collective“free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” What guidance might we find looking to our Unitarian Universalist heritage?

The first of our seven principles, “The inherent worth and dignity of every person,” corresponds theologically to the concept of imago dei: the image of God. In the biblical story of creation we read that “God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image’” (Genesis 1:26 NRSV). Our Unitarian ancestors—walking in the footsteps of some ancient theologians—taught that every human being bears the image of God. For example, [as we heard in the reading today] in the first half of the nineteenth century William Ellery Channing recognized the Divine in our capacity for intelligence, love, and conscience. He wrote

The divine attributes are first developed in ourselves,
and thence transferred to our Creator. 
The idea of God, sublime and awful as it is,
is the idea of our own spiritual nature,
purified and enlarged to infinity. 
In ourselves are the elements of the Divinity.

It requires awareness and great mental discipline to avoid thinking of God as just like a human being with superior powers. But if we steer clear of this pitfall, the moral implications of imago dei can offer valuable guidance. Channing's theology led him to preach the abolition of slavery, and he promoted self-improvement as a religious duty. We celebrate this notion when we sing “This Little Light of Mine.”

We can also look to the sixth and seventh principles as guides: The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all and Respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part. These principles focus on the values of relationship, interconnectedness, and community. What images of God convey these values? How does a concept of the Divine inform our sense of being part of something greater than ourselves?

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a feminist author of the early twentieth century, wrote a study entitled His Religion and Hers. She speculates about how female leadership might improve the lot of humankind. Men are hunters and warriors—their religion focuses on death and the afterlife. Their gods are competitive and warlike. According to Gilman, women’s world-view is forward looking, concerned with birth and the raising of children. Listen to this striking vision:

Suppose the wisest men in the world were gathered together in a great hall to decide on what was most needed for human benefit, and suppose that into that hall came pouring, through a chute, babies at the rate of thirty a minute. Would anything be discussed there except what to do with those babies? (pp. 9-10)

What sort of god is implied by the conjuring of loving arms to catch all of the babies? This extraordinary scene is not actually very different from the reality: babies pouring through a chute into our midst every two seconds. It is a reality with significant implications for leadership. Statistics of global net population growth may not touch our hearts, but how might we imagine the role and image of the Divine in a setting where newborn babies pour through a chute without interruption into our own arms?

Here's another suggestion to entertain: I once heard a Muslim imam preach that God is the center toward which people approach in their efforts to live a good life. Some reach closer to the center, while others struggle from farther out. The imam, leader of the Friday prayer service at the mosque, contrasted this with a dualistic worldview that divides people into sheep and goats: good and evil. I rather like the image of all people facing toward a single point, a center of value and power that commands our energy, our love, and our loyalty. When Muslims pray, they bow toward Mecca, physically enacting their unity. This image offers a powerful vision of cooperation and harmony.

Another example comes from Kate Braestrup, a Unitarian Universalist minister and chaplain to the Maine Warden Service. Braestrup often deals with loss and grief. She is called to serve in the most tragic of circumstances: a teenage daughter has disappeared, a husband and father has fallen through thin ice while skating, an unlucky hiker has been caught in bad weather. Sometimes she is asked “where was God” in some awful thing that happened. Braestrup proposes we look for God in the love and care among human beings responding to each other: a neighbor bringing a plate of brownies to a bereaved family, a pair of life partners enjoying moments of intimacy over their morning coffee, a volunteer delivering books to a house-bound elder, a rescue team searching through the night for a lost child. To say “God is love” suggests deeds: “I by my works will show you my faith” (James 2:18). Love is true north, a center of value and power that shines forth in acts of generosity and kindness. [“We are the Body of God.” Sister Simone Campbell.] We could do worse than be guided by images of friendly faces, expressions of concern, and loving care.

I invite you now to think about the images of God that populate your mind and your dream landscape. Set aside for a moment what you believe about God—conclusions you have reached in your mature, rational religious exploration. (When I asked my life partner about his memories, he talked about Geppetto in the belly of the whale, in the story of Pinocchio—which perhaps makes Walt Disney an image of God.) If you are willing, call up pictures and stories, images and conversations that made some kind of impression on you, positive or negative. Maybe you have an early memory of a Sunday-school lesson or a Vacation Bible School activity? A frightening dream or an encounter with mystery? How do these images continue to affect you? The more emotionally charged they are, the more important it is to be aware of them. Experience and brain science tell us that images and stories bypass the rational process. They influence our attitudes and decisions and actions much more than we might realize, much more than we would like. After all, this is what makes advertising and product placement so effective.

Without dwelling on the question of belief, what concepts of God animate our moral imagination? What images might call us to our highest aspirations, to our greatest fulfillment, to our whole and authentic selves? What images strengthen us in hope, patience, and love? We needn't decide on just one, and we needn't agree. But I'll warrant that the the images that attract and inspire us the most resonate with the principles and values we share. I close with these words by poet Nancy Schaffer:

"That Which Holds All"

Because she wanted everyone to feel included

in her prayer,

she said right at the beginning

several names for the Holy:

Spirit, she said, Holy One, Mystery, God


but then thinking these weren’t enough ways of addressing

that which cannot be fully addressed, she added

particularities, saying, Spirit of Life, Spirit of Love,

Ancient Holy One, Mystery We will Not Ever Fully Know,

Gracious God and also spirit of This Earth,

God of Sarah, Gaia, Thou


and then, tongue loosened, she fell to naming

superlatives as well: Most Creative One,

Greatest Source, Closest Hope—

even though superlatives for the Sacred seemed to her

probably redundant, but then she couldn’t stop:


One Who Made the Stars, she said, although she knew

technically a number of those present didn’t believe

The stars had been made by anyone or thing

but just luckily happened.

One Who Is an Entire Ocean of Compassion,

she said, and no one laughed.

That Which Has Been Present Since Before the Beginning,

she said, and the room was silent.


Then, although she hadn’t imagined it this way,

others began to offer names:


Peace, said one.

One My Mother Knew, said another.

Ancestor, said a third.



Breath, said one near the back.


That Which Holds All.

A child said, Water.

Someone said, Kuan Yin.

Then: Womb.


Great Kindness.

Great Eagle.

Eternal Stillness.


And then, there wasn’t any need to say the things

she’d thought would be important to say,

and everyone sat hushed, until someone said


Closing song #343 A Firemist and Planet


Go your ways,

knowing not the answers to all things,

yet seeking always the answer

to one more thing than you know.

~John W. Brigham