Monday, January 18, 2010

The Imageless Image of God

Many times I have heard the Christian God disdainfully dismissed as an old man with a beard sitting in heaven. I always wonder whom these skeptics are talking about. Perhaps they are thinking of children drawing crayon pictures of God in Sunday School, but this is not the God of any mature believer I have ever known.

When John gets his first glimpse of “the One on the throne,” this is his description: “At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian. A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne…. From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder.” (Revelation 4:2-5)

The God of Revelation is not described as a superlative humanoid, but as radiant, dazzling color, brilliant light accompanied by the sounds of a mighty storm. In Revelation, the book of symbols and images, God is the imageless God. This is consistent with the Biblical proscription against depicting God in images. The first two of the Ten Commandments is devoted to this instruction about God.

This is the Only One who is worthy of worship, which is the action of the fourth chapter of Revelation. Humans, animals and angels bow before and worship this imageless One. The God that can be contained in images – visual or intellectual - is a deity that has been idolized.

This does not mean that we can say nothing about God; that would leave us with no gospel (good news) to proclaim. But it reminds us that all descriptions of God must be taken as human approximations, imperfect symbols for a symboless Reality. Even words are symbols. Even thoughts fall short. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the LORD. "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)

This theological road has been called the via negativa – that the best way to describe God is to say what God is not. Take away all human images for God and you are left with the True God. It is known as apophatic theology.

It is the God of the burning bush of Moses, who when asked for his name responded enigmatically with a non-name, “I am who I am.” It is the God of silence heard by Elijah on Mount Horeb. It is the God of Job in the whirlwind, the God of the pillar of fire and cloud in the wilderness. It is the God of the empty space between the cherubim’s wings on the ark of the covenant. It is the God who will not be contained in any box but only incarnated in human flesh – supremely in the Son, but also in us.

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