God in our image

January 16, 2011

Today’s sermon, which I’ll post later this week, was on the second commandment:

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

In the sermon I reflected on the various ways in which we commit idolatry these days. They are legion, even though we don’t literally bow down to them or worship them.

I also tried to reconcile these words regarding jealousy and punishment with the idea that the Ten Commandments are a gift from a loving God. In context, both jealousy—the kind of jealously guarded love that defines a relationship between wives and husbands—and punishment are completely compatible with love. More than that, if God weren’t “jealous” and didn’t punish for sin, God would be less than loving.

I said the following about God’s hatred of sin:

Granted, if we were creating a god in our image, we wouldn’t create the kind of God we have. We would want our god to shrug his shoulders and say, “It’s no big deal. You’re only human. Everyone makes mistakes. Besides, the important thing is that you be true to yourself. Do what you want. I’ll make sure there are no consequences.” But that kind of god would hate us if that were his attitude toward sin.

Creating God in our image… How often do we risk doing this? It doesn’t help that we have this famously beautiful—although theologically troubling—depiction of God’s creating humanity in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting. I’m not sure how this painting doesn’t violate both the letter and spirit of the second (or, if you’re Catholic or Lutheran, first) commandment.

I'm uncomfortable with this image of God as the "old man in the sky." (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

The universal church dealt with the rules regarding “graven images” and icons and statues in the Second Council of Nicaea in the eight century. Most Christians, East and West, Protestant and Catholic, accept the council’s judgment. Among many other things, the council ruled that artistic depictions of Jesus are perfectly acceptable because of the incarnation: When God became human, God gave us a way of picturing him in human form. Therefore we’re not breaking the second commandment by doing so.

In Michelangelo’s painting, however, he’s not depicting Jesus, but presumably God the Father. For all I know, our Catholic brothers and sisters worked out any theological kinks during the Renaissance. (To be clear, I’m not commenting at all on the aesthetic quality of what I’m sure is a breathtakingly beautiful painting—especially seeing it in person.)

But I am uncomfortable with the painting. It reinforces the troubling image of God as that “old man in the sky”—frankly, the most common “god” in whom many atheists, for example, don’t believe. He seems old and out of touch, perhaps doddering and senile. He’s probably hopelessly old-fashioned, a stickler for rules, and not a god who could relate to humanity and its contemporary problems and concerns.

Or maybe he’s like an indulgent grandparent, brazenly spoiling his grandchildren when the parents are out of sight.

You get the idea. Either way, this is far from being what I consider a good artistic representation of God. It is unfortunately perhaps the most influential.

We create “God” in our image in innumerable ways. All these efforts attempt to shrink God down to our size. I think I often do this, for example, in my own unwillingness at times to seek God’s guidance or direction through prayer. I pretend that God is just a larger, more powerful, more perfect version of myself, after all, so my will and God’s will are surely the same.

There are plenty of other ways—you can think of your own. The second commandment challenges us to resist all these efforts. Whatever we are, God is something else entirely. Thank God!

The following image is a bit of faux scripture, in King James language, that describes humanity’s attempt to make God in our image. It comes from the back of Jethro Tull’s best-selling Aqualung album, from 1971. Tull is one of my favorite bands. The album includes a few songs that discuss our hypocrisy as we relate to God. I don’t completely agree with Anderson’s take on organized religion, but his point about making “God” in our image is still a good one. (Click on the image to enlarge.)

While we’re on the subject, here’s the last song from the album, which I like quite a bit. Maybe you will, too.

God is not the kind you have to wind up on Sunday!

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