Common perhaps to all religions is the struggle to understand God. The immensity of the concept of God defies our comprehension (i.e. transcendence), yet our capability to understand is based on our human experience which we project onto our ideas of God (i.e. anthropomorphism). This creates an inevitable dilemma of perspective. When we look at God too abstractly, God can become distanced and irrelevant. Yet when we look at God in human terms, God becomes limited and inconsistent. In an attempt to address this problem, each of the major religions has, at times, banned artistic representations of God – a practice know as aniconism.
In the Judea-Christian tradition, the biblical book of Genesis presents the idea that humans beings are made in God’s image. This notion has been at times been helpful and also not helpful as it can create a sense of entitlement without accountability or duty-of-care. At least that has often been the historical consequence in Western civilisation.
Somewhere in the middle ground is the space where we can use human characteristics and experiences to describe God, but we use them poetically and not literally. In this way, we put aside the inevitable intellectual conflicts of literalism, allowing us to experience the emotional and intuitive feelings of our spirituality.
The 13th century theologian, Bonaventure Bagnoregio, expanded the poetic metaphor of “God’s image” suggesting that it was a continuum that could be experienced at three different levels, symbolised by a footprint, a shadow, and a mirror. For example, we might observe the world around us in the same way that we might observe a footprint. From that impression, we would feel that the presence of God had been at work in the past. We could equate that with the way humans view God in the geophysical world. Alternatively we might be able to observe a situation in real time and feel God’s moving presence. That would be similar to the way we might discern the presence of an unseen person by observing their passing shadow. We could equate that with the way in which humans view God’s presence in the natural world. Ultimately, we might be able to go further and even spiritually discern God’s realtime “image” as if it was seen as a reflection in a mirror (i.e. a likeness). We might equate that with the way humans view God in each other through relationships.
In the New Testament gospels, Jesus frequently refers to God as a ‘father” and then extends that notion of God’s paternal relationship to all humanity (Note: a contemporary reader of that would be alert to the implications of cultural sexism and might adjust the metaphor to the gender-neutral constructs of parent and the parental relationship). In the parables of Jesus, the stories teach that doing good or bad to others is in fact doing good or bad to God and therefore, by extension, God is present in each of us.
The question remains as to what we need to do if we want to make the notion of seeing and feeling God’s presence in each other a spiritually meaningful experience for ourselves.
One helpful approach is to change our thinking from “God” to “G.O.D.” So when we look to see God in other people, we are not really looking for a physical image of some representation of a deity. We are instead looking for some relational characteristics which allow us to feel a connection with the divine through our interactions with that person. Changing our perspective from seeing “God” in a person to seeing “G.O.D.” in them , we have:
G – goodness
O – oneness
D – diversity
We can observe goodness in the actions and considerations of others. We perceive such goodness as manifestations of love. In the Cristian tradition, God and love are described as being synonymous (1 John 4:8 & 16). The habitual striving to see the good in others, changes our default perception of people, and with practice it also changes us making us more loving in the present.
Oneness is a sense of universality. We find the notion of oneness as not only being central to Abrahamic faiths, but even being present in faith traditions that have multiple deities. One manifestation of this is the golden rule of do unto others as you would have them do to you. Variants of that are found in many religions. When we apply the golden rule superficially, it becomes dry and transactional – a quid pro quo between two parties. Alternately, we can choose to apply the golden rule transformationally. From that perspective we can acknowledge the universality of our oneness by cultivating and practicing empathy. We can experience this sense of oneness through engaging in loving relationships.
Diversity is the discernment, appreciation, and celebration of our individual uniqueness. We cannot bulldoze our way to oneness. Such an approach denies the reality of our individual lived experiences. It makes our relationships false. Our quest for goodness and oneness requires us to hear, nurture, and honour each other’s unique stories – our personal narratives – our diversity.
So the next time you are wondering about your perception of the nature of God, you might consider looking to the person or persons next you and try to practice your ability to perceive G.O.D. in them.