God is a What?! Part Two

Stephen MarshMormon 25 Comments

When you think of God, do you envision?

  • a proper English gentleman
  • a modernized Biblical patriarch
  • an erudite English professor at a Ivy league university
  • a tame Lion (returning to the C. S. Lewis reference)?

Do you recreate God in your own idealized image?

There is a constant assumption in much of what I read that God shares the sensibilities, values and perspectives of the person writing.  Comments on that trend probably reached their peak in those who wrote against the implicit belief in the 1800s that God was really a proper English gentleman.  That is, people exposed to Christianity rebelled at the concept that God’s view as identical to the British managerial class of the 1800s.

But usually we do not question the base assumption.  So, some see God being like Abraham, Isaac or Jacob, except without the slaves or plural wives, and without sheep to herd.  The more educated drop the beard and robes and update God to his proper place as a relaxed professor at an Ivy League, with the same tastes, mores and values.

In every case, people recreate God into a tame Lion.  Of course they agree with Aslan and C. S. Lewis that God is not a tame lion, at least as far as others are concerned, but when God says “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD” they know that what God is saying is that “I think just like you do, I’m talking to everyone else who hasn’t reached your degree of enlightenment.”

I would suggest that any time we become that comfortable in our perspectives, we are wrong.

First, God has the perspectives that come with age.  There are dramatic differences n the way a three year old child and a five year old child thinks.  Differences between seven and twelve are dramatic.  Between thirteen and twenty-one are such differences that thirteen year olds refuse to believe that they exist.  The difference between eighteen and twenty-two is statistically significant.  Twenty-six and thirty-two is a surprising gap, as is the change in perspective between forty and fifty.  Anyone care to really believe that there are not the same differences between a hundred and a thousand, or a thousand and ten thousand?

Second, intelligence does surprising things to thoughts.  Someone at an IQ of 90 thinks much differently than someone with an IQ of 120.  140 is a good deal different from 160.  160 is different from 170+  Extreme grief reduces functional intelligence for a while, and is an interesting experience in perspective, as are other things that have the same effect.  I do not doubt that if God has an IQ of greater than 300 he thinks in  dramatically different ways than we do.

Third, God sees and deals with inter relationships far more complex than we do.  There may have been many reasons for the law of Moses, but one thing it did was keep the Jews from becoming assimilated before Christ came.  It truly was a schoolmaster to bring them to where they could accept the Christ in that regard (and it is easy to forget that many did — in fact at one point all of the Church consisted of citizens of the kingdom of Judah).

I’ve written about affliction before, but if God has a similar view of our afflictions as it appears we would have looking back at them after only a thousand years, he might well conclude there were more important things than resolving them.

What is God, beyond a God of Miracles?  I would suggest that God is someone who loves us, but of whom we can say “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts.”

I think we are vastly mistaken when we think we know better than God, understand things more clearly, or can correlate all of the reasons for God’s commandments.  What we need to know, to believe and to hope is that while we do not know the meaning of all things, we know that God loves his children.

Comments 25

  1. This reminds me of Levi Peterson’s “Cowboy Jesus.” I think most of us form our beliefs about God based on what we’d like Him to be, rather than “scriptural” sources. And I’m perfectly ok with that.

  2. My image of God is incomplete, and will remain so until I know more. There are a number of characteristics that are attributed to him, but he also has shown to be somewhat contradictory, acting on things as needed where he wouldn’t in other cases. I think that even if he were to reveal himself to me in a vision, my image of him would not be complete because it would only add one more layer (or a number of multiple layers). There are aspects about God that I will never understand with my finite infantile knowledge. I cannot pin him down to one label, or another, or even a number of them.

  3. To the post, later, but I think SingleSpeed said something profound – and true – in #1:

    “I think most of us form our beliefs about God based on what we’d like Him to be, rather than “scriptural” sources. And I’m perfectly ok with that.”

    I simply would add that many of the scriptural sources appear to be manifestations of what was needed or wanted at the time, so even many of them are God appearing to people in the way that they needed or wanted – what “they’d like Him to be”. I also am fine with that.

    I believe, personally, that there are certain things about the Restored Gospel perception that are more in line with the scriptural sources than other perceptions, but that’s still my dark glass through which I’m seeing. My problems arise simply when others’ perception of God is one that actively tries to limit my ability to form my own perception – that is based on compulsion or force.

  4. Now to the post –

    My favorite summaries of God are:

    1) I am a child of God.

    2) God is love.

    There are problems with those statements for people whose lives have not made one or both of those statements a positive. For example, if a girl was sexually abused by her father, seeing God as a father-figure (especially in the OT model) can be very difficult to do. Otoh, that person often casts God as the “perfect” father – the one she never had, which can lead to an extreme version of #2. (a God who NEVER punishes or does anything that even could appear to be abusive) Such a view can lead to a denial of “justice” of any kind and end up with an “easy grace” theology.

  5. First, a nutshell introduction of myself. Convert as an adult. High Priest. 17 years active. I was conducting a temple recommend interview with a good sister in my ward when I realized I could no longer answer the questions correctly myself, starting with the first one. I have now been inactive for about three years. Lived entire life in “mission field” never even visited the West.

    I don’t know who or what God is. In Stephen’s last paragraph he seems clearly deferential to a God who is omniscient. I see SingleSpeed’s point that “most of us form our beliefs about God based on what we’d like Him to be, rather than “scriptural” sources.” Dan suggest his knowledge of God will always be incomplete, due to Dan’s own nature which seems consistent with Stephen’s statement that whenever we think we have become comfortable in our perspectives of God, we are wrong. And Ray has problems when others try to limit his ability to form his own impression of God.

    The clearest thought I can get about God is that he is all things to all people, (or at least vastly different things to different people) because people made God. If people made God, then it makes sense that everyone’s perception is different, everyone is confident and comfortable with their own view. It seems to me that if God made people, then there wouldn’t be so many variations. Here, I guess, I am seeking a “rational” God.

    If God isn’t fixed in reality, but is actually somehow all things to all people, and everyone can know and experience God in their own way, then perhaps God is more like “happiness” or some ephemeral concept. Each of us is free to find happiness in our own way, gardening, or race cars, or scary movies, or even (gasp) blogging. Maybe similarly we are each free to find God in our own way, with or without church, scriptures, organization, prophets, etc.

    Merely for discussion’s sake I am summarizing and not attempting to pigeonhole or label anyone. Stephen may find comfort in an omniscient God, Dan in an infinitely complex God, I might be accepting of a “rational” God. Of course, for him to be rational by my standards, he would have to “think like me” so it seems to me that SingleSpeed has really captured this idea pretty well, but I might rephrase it to say that

    “Men create God in their own images.”

    And, by saying this I am not trying to be flippant, but it does seem to explain why God is so many different things to so many different people.

  6. Having given this more thought than I feel healthy over the years,I have concluded for myself that one of my life’s tasks is to cease to define God and try to know Him.I often wonder how He feels i am doing.I can never be comfortable around other’s definition of God as I am beginning to have lived long enough to see how painful it can have to be to have to revise those definitions.God is,and we have to learn to live with that.But ,by the way,He’s not a capitalist,and He’s not American.

  7. What if God is one of the commenters on blogs like this? That comment sounds like I’ve been smoking weed, but I meant it more in a “if the Savior blogged beside me” way.

  8. By saying “God” I don’t immediately picture God the Father. Rather, I strive to ponder upon unity and threeness that is the Trinity. To me God the Son, Jesus Christ, is God incarnate with whom it is easier to mentally picture: a shorter, stocky, semitic man with modest beauty, probably not immediately attractive, but irresistible after you’ve looked into His eyes and allowed yourself to perceive His personality, inner strength, depth and wisdom. God the Holy Spirit, though I’m not really “gender” committed, I see glorified not in physical imagery, but rather in art, beauty, poetry, metaphor, transformation, sanctifying compassion, with a distinctly feminine kind of angle. I see God the Father with a greater reverence, with a more mighty, masculine, brilliant, nature, holy and intellectual majesty than I see in the role reflected of the Holy Spirit.

    The mental image for which I’ve constructed for God the Trinity is an experience both physical, mental and spiritual, both allegorical and completely real. I try not to worry that in unity there is not a single, simple mental picture nor metaphor that captures the whole picture for myself. To try to force a single, distinct physical manifestation for Him/Them feels like constructing an idol to whom to pray. Yet I try to use it as a launching point to invite me to ponder on holiness, reverence, awe, worship —

    So here’s what I imagine: I’m alone with my wife on a beautiful and clean beach, embracing her by standing right behind and close to her back, my arms reaching around, embracing and intertwining with hers. We talk softly. I breathe on the nape of her neck, whisper tenderly into her ear. I adore here girly curves and femininity and she feels my strength and masculinity. We feel comfortable, unguarded, in love, and at one. She turns her head to the side so I can see her gaze deeply into my eyes. I kiss her lips softly.

    The beach is very Northwestern-like. The sand is a little rough looking but feels soft like a Cancun beach underfoot. The breeze is cool yet completely comfortable. I love how my Love’s hair flutters and floats in the breeze. The sea is fierce and mighty, breaking on rocks in the mid distance, yet the color is blue, clear and deep like a Caribbean isle. We see cute crabs scurrying in the sand toward the tide pools of brightly colored starfish and anemone. The sounds of birds mixing with the surf is like invigorating, lively songs of worship. Lush, deep green, dense and misty forests, clinging to grey, craggy rocks, much like I saw in Japan, are rising up in the background.

    We can see the moon, Venus, the Milky Way, and the stars and planets of Heaven as perceptibly as if it were a night unpolluted by nearby cities. Yet it is day here on the beach with my wife. I perceive the complete awe, beauty and reverence at seeing and experiencing this amazing landscape with all my senses, here with her. My heart is filled to bursting with love, companionship, grace, forgiveness and acceptance. My ears tear lightly because it is so much to take in.

    We see Jesus walking toward us, holding the hand of each of our boys. They are barefoot. They are looking and laughing at their footsteps, how they disappear in the wet sand after they have stepped away. They are bringing a picnic to share. We all embrace for a moment and greet one another. We laugh in the pleasure of having their playful company and personalities around us. We sit down and talk together over a simple, yet robust, complex and flavor-filled picnic of colorful, fragrant fruit, pungent cheese, cured meats, sweet wine and crusty, fresh bread, laid out on a fresh-smelling, crisp and crumpled natural linen. Our senses and emotions are overwhelmed on every level, yet we can completely take it all in.

    Pondering upon and imagining God like this invites me to be fully human and centered in looking within humanity and human experience for the divine spark. God also invites me to look upward and outward to those characteristics of Him that invite me to be transformed into my best self.

  9. #7 Andrew, thank you. I am familiar with that poem/story. I have often heard it offered as an explanation of God, but for several reasons the analogous reasoning fails for me. Some of the problems I see with this analogy include:

    1. The elephant is making no effort to communicate its existence to the blind men whereas God (at least in most stories of God) is trying emphatically to communicate his existence through scriptures, prophets, pastors, miracles, etc.

    2. The blind men (or sages in the fog) are disabled in their ability to see the elephant clearly through no action or inaction taken by the elephant. At least some stories of God posit that he is intentionally making it difficult for us to see him so that we can have faith rather than knowledge. There are other stories whereby it is part of God’s plan for us to not see him clearly or completely.

    3. The blind men seem analogous to the teachers of each various religions, but what then makes the teachers of our religion (or us) any different from any of the others? If this is the case, it seems to be an analogy designed to prove all organized religions to be incorrect. This possibility seems plausible to me, but I suspect may not be what you were going for.

    4. Your rewrite of the elephant story could be interpreted to mean that the boy got the complete story and therefore whichever religion has the “complete” story of God is the real one. The problem then becomes each of us claims to be the boy, and assigns everyone else to be one of the blind men.

    5. And, of course, the biggest problem with this analogy is that it assumes that there is a God, that God is objective and real, therefore the problem must be in the interpretation of God. If the sages in your story had heard rumors of God, but knew nothing whatever of elephants, and went out looking for God and had exactly the same experience as in the story (meaning they encountered an elephant), they would come back defining God exactly as they did, and the boy would then get the “True” picture of God, but of course, it still wouldn’t really be God, it would be an elephant.

    I could go into more detail on each of these points (and perhaps have gone into too much detail already), and I think I also have some other problems with the analogy that I can’t recall right now.

    But, thank you. I suspect you offered this because it helps you, and that is great, but it leaves in the same place I was.

    God is all things to all people and/or God is vastly different things to all people.

    Ray’s thought that “God is love” is frequently expressed. Love seems again an intangible, like happiness, and is again different to each different person.

    Ray also says that God is a Father. I have lots of problems with the idea of God as a father, either literal or metaphorical, but that is probably again because I want a rational God.

    I appreciate your thoughts and your sharing. I just can’t get any kind of understanding of God any longer. I think Nick made reference to Santa Claus in Part I of this thread. I often see my condition as analogous to ceasing to believe in Santa Claus, I just can’t through wishing or willing or praying or anything else seem to believe in Santa Claus again, nor does it seem to be able to get me to believe in God again. (And, I offer this only by way of analogy. I am not attempting to trivialize anyone else’s belief in God or equate Santa Claus with God.)

    And, although I’ve just very briefly skimmed Just for Quix’s imagery of God, but this beautiful story again adds to my contention that God is all things to all people or at least very different things to different people.

  10. Andrew, one of my favorite scriptures is I Cor. 13:12.

    I am posting something on Sunday about that concept (related to Andrew’s wonderful Dark Night of the Soul post), so I won’t go into great detail here, but grasping that core principle is central to BOTH my agreement with what you are saying and my unconcern about it.

  11. Btw, Andrew C., I quote I John 4:8 NOT to say that God “is” love, but to highlight how the entire chapter describes God as being represented by love. I think it would have been more clear to say something like, “God is fully loving,” or, “Everything God does and is can be encapsulated in and understood through an understanding of His love,” but, “God is love,” fits a recorded page much better.

  12. Andrew C. (10), respectfully, I think you may be losing sight of the forest by fixating on the trees. You made a simple proposition: that the variation in human descriptions of God prove that man made God, i.e., that God does not really exist.

    The parable to which I referred you simply illustrates why variation in human descriptions of something does not prove that thing does not exist. I think we would all agree it was foolish of the king to conclude that there was no such thing as an elephant even though all his wise men gave him varying descriptions of it.

    Is it much different to conclude God doesn’t exist because people describe God differently?

  13. The real parable of the blind men and the elephant starts off something like this:

    One blind man was touching an elephant’s trunk, one was was clutching feebly for the elephant’s tail as it was whipped about, one was touching a toy elephant, one was touching himself and one was touching a rat …


  14. I’m glad you’re laughing Ray – cause that made me laugh, and I’ve been in one of my grouchier moods this afternoon. 🙂


  15. Andrew A. (13) wrote: “You made a simple proposition: that the variation in human descriptions of God prove that man made God, i.e., that God does not really exist.”

    I’m sorry if that is what you thought I said. I had hoped I was saying that if God was made by men (which I currently believe is the case), then it follows that there would be lots of different descriptions of God, because these men would each apply their own wants, desires, explanations, etc. of who or what God is.

    I suspect a great many of us believe that the gods of primitive cultures were made up by those primitive peoples. Those primitive peoples were doing the best they could, in many cases long before science (or even rhetoric) was available to help explain how or why things happened. Some folks figured out (or thought they did) that thunder came from Thor’s hammer, love came into someone’s life when they were struck by Cupid’s arrow, demons possessed people we would now describe as mentally ill, etc. I think it is probable that the primary purpose of God(s) in earlier cultures was to explain things we now use science to explain. Men’s use of God(s) seems to have evolved and expanded in the past few thousand years.

    And, regarding your specific question about drawing a conclusion of non-existence based on variation in story, I would pont out that there are lots of different descriptions of vampires. Is it the variation in the way the stories are told about vampires that causes us to believe they aren’t real? No. Similarly, it isn’t the variation in the stories about God that cause me to not believe there is some tangible God. Just like with vampires I doubt the existence of the supernatural.

    I do often wish, however, that I could get the belief back and in many ways envy those who still have those beliefs.

  16. I have come to the realization that however I picture God is not really important or relevant. It’s more important to know Him than to know ABOUT Him. At least that’s my current focus. I could articulate what I think He may look like or sound like or what kind of car He drives, but knowing Him is more important than that. And I think it’s like when you know someone on the internet or only through email. I can picture in my head what you people all look like (with some help from what I assume are probably somewhat outdated or idealized pics in some cases), but even if you look nothing like I imagine, I still know you to varying degrees from our conversations here. That’s what I think it’s like to know God.

  17. one of my life’s tasks is to cease to define God and try to know Him You’ve stolen my conclusion.

    What if God is one of the commenters on blogs like this? Yes, what if “God was one of us, just a stranger on a bus …”

    I should admit that I’ve been pondering God, recently, through the filter of AA. I’m not an alcoholic, but I got reading the literature for thoughts of how it might relate to grief recovery (it doesn’t) and stayed for what it says about God.

    Some really interesting lessons there.

    Well, this has convinced me I need to do parts three and four.

  18. The song, btw:


    If God had a name, what would it be
    And would you call it to his face
    If you were faced with him in all his glory
    What would you ask if you had just one question

    And yeah yeah God is great yeah yeah God is good
    yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah

    What if God was one of us
    Just a slob like one of us
    Just a stranger on the bus
    Trying to make his way home

    If God had a face what would it look like
    And would you want to see
    If seeing meant that you would have to believe
    In things like heaven and in jesus and the saints and all the prophets

    And yeah yeah god is great yeah yeah god is good
    yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah

    What if God was one of us
    Just a slob like one of us
    Just a stranger on the bus
    Trying to make his way home
    He’s trying to make his way home
    Back up to heaven all alone
    Nobody calling on the phone
    Except for the pope maybe in rome

    And yeah yeah God is great yeah yeah God is good
    yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah

    What if god was one of us
    Just a slob like one of us
    Just a stranger on the bus
    Trying to make his way home
    Just trying to make his way home
    Like a holy rolling stone
    Back up to heaven all alone
    Just trying to make his way home
    Nobody calling on the phone
    Except for the pope maybe in rome

  19. I was #4. Now I am more like seeing God as a mix of everything in your post in my daily life just because it is easier to address to Him this way. I can handle it better this way because then I actually have an “image” of Him. But when I take the time I am closer to hawkgrrrl and her #18 because this God is the one that has been puzzling me for the past months and the one that I think really loves me: someone I don’t know really.

    Here is my short (extremly short) story: a few months ago I went through something that I still can’t describe with either of the two languages I speak. This lasted for a full week and I think it could have gone longer but I ended it because it became almost painfull for my soul. I had never felt my soul before. I knew I had one because I had been taught so and because I had experienced powerfull spiritual events but I had never FELT my soul. The best image I can use (and please humor me because it far from being the best way to describe it) is the picture of a little girl who would be pouting on the side of a rocky path not willing to follow her father. The father may talk to her with the sweetest voice and words she just won’t move. So he eventually drags her on the rocky path thus hurting her since she is wearing shorts.
    This is an abusive and stupid father. We all aggree with this. He could just have picked her up. LOL
    But this is to try to explain how I have felt. I felt litterally pulled back and draged on this path and the more I resisted the more it hurted. I saw the point where it was really going to be dangerous for my physicall health so I stood on my two feet and decided to follow.
    This is puzzling.
    Why me?
    Why this way?
    Why now?
    Do I deserve such a treatment? There are so many people who are suffering the way I have been suffering and He does not seem to put so much efforts as He has with me. This is the God I want to know. I know He is a mix of the “gods” you have talked about and I know that He is beyond it and that I need to learn to know Him just for my own happiness at least. And maybe He really wants me to know and understand him.
    And I can’t picture this God. We both (He and I) aggree that being a mormon is not what life is about, thank you very much. But this is where He wants to see me. And I want to know him out of the images that have been used on this post and the comments because all is true and yet so partial that it almost makes it a lie.

  20. Sooooo – “all is true and yet so partial that it almost makes it a lie” What a great sentiment. So much can be explained in these simple words, yet people persist in fighting one another over what is neither known nor truly knowable.

    As to God being a stupid/abusive father not taking the time with his petulant daughter, based on what I see on CNN, this is a bit of a trend when families have a LOT of kids (different issues with small families, mind you). Just sayin’. Yet, to pursue your neglectful parenting anaology further (and tie in a little with Dark Night of the Soul), children whose parents give them a lot of latitude with little instruction and guidance raise the most creative kids. Of course, creativity can manifest itself in a wide range from strategic problem solving all the way to deviousness.

  21. A great topic, Stephen. I look forward to your third installment.

    I strongly resonate to the insight “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts.” If this is so it opens up the possibility of literally anything within his mind and will working together for our good as a human family and as individual family members. Especially after listening to John Dehlin’s entire Mormon Stories series I’ve come to believe that locking one’s testimony on God leaves plenty of room for his pre-Zion kingdom to often be a messy, organic business—and still be worthwhile of our best energies and allegiances.

    I believe that God our heavenly father has become perfected by obedience to the eternal laws of salvation. His obedience led him naturally, inexorably to join a class of beings so wildly advanced beyond us here in mortality that we reach out to him only by faith and perceive him in infinitely small glimpses only by the Holy Ghost. That he sustains every breath of every soul that has ever lived here including us—brings tears to my eyes. I agree with the proposition that our purpose here includes coming to know him. I would amend that to include us coming to know ourselves. Are we not marvelous beings of light and power, tutored and nurtured for untold eons by our God?

    I ran across a wonderful nugget in the Sunstone archive by Grant Bishop called, “God Is Light, Somewhere in Time and Everywhere Transcending Time”. The synopsis either intrigues or repells!:

    “Is it possible that God with a glorified body of flesh and bones, residing somewhere in time, can also be everywhere transcending time? Logic says no, but scriptures, the physics of light, and near-death experiences support a paradoxical reality. Everything in the universe is interconnected yet separate. Some of those who have had near-death experiences describe being everywhere, yet remaining separate as individuals. If God is light, as John declared, it is reasonable that God could also be somewhere yet everywhere, just as light and all matter exist throughout the cosmos.”


    It reminds me of the decidedly un-Mormon belief that God is All That Is. Years ago my wife’s best friend lost her husband to brain cancer. In one of several visits after he passed over he communicated to Kerry that God is all around us but that he wasn’t supposed to talk about it. I’m content knowing that the universe and our great father source is much more marvelous than we currently perceive.

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