Anthropomorphising God…

We had a lovely evening last night with our friends Susan and Steven. Our kids a great friends, and they live within an easy walking distance. We ate, shared a few glasses of wine, and laughed a lot.

And as ever, we discussed religion a little. Susan is a Buddhist, and it has been really interesting to share stories and perspectives. Sometimes it seems that we share so much, whilst at other times, the differences are stark. Michaela and I have often described how good these conversations feel though- neither of us are trying to win the other to our own perspective- rather we feel a respect and a pilgrim-companionship.

Because neither of us have all of this sorted. Perhaps the adjustment was greater for us in this regard- as we have been schooled in a kind of religion that has to pretend to have all the answers, lest we miss an opportunity for someone to come a realisation of the error of their ways. And of course, there is the spectre of hell waiting for those who do not grasp the ‘truth’.

Hmmm- am I sliding still towards syncretism and universalism? Whilst I may have a lot of difficulties with the narrow way of thinking that I describe above, I remain a Christian.

Last night, Susan commented on her experience of reading ‘The shack‘. Not one of my favourite books, I have to say- I found the extended images too laboured, and the writing a bit too overblown. However Susan’s perspective on the book was shaped by her starting point as a Buddhist- and the fact that the ‘person’ of God is not part of her experience. She would not necessarily see God as an entity, or a being- for her faith is a process of becoming.

Initially, I felt a sense of loss for my friend. Because my faith is driven most of all by a developing awareness of the person of Jesus, and the Father, communicated by the Spirit.

But later, I began to think again about what this might mean- to take a look at my belief from the perspective of an outsider- which is the great benefit of these conversations with people of a different faith.

And because I love words, I started with two words-

Personification

1. (Literary & Literary Critical Terms) the attribution of human characteristics to things, abstract ideas, etc., as for literary or artistic effect
2. (Fine Arts & Visual Arts / Art Terms) the representation of an abstract quality or idea in the form of a person, creature, etc., as in art and literature
3. a person or thing that personifies
4. a person or thing regarded as an embodiment of a quality he is the personification of optimism
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Then there is this other word-
Anthropomorphism is the attribution of uniquely human characteristics to non-human creatures and beings, natural and supernatural phenomena, material states and objects or abstract concepts. Subjects for anthropomorphism commonly include animalsdepicted as creatures with human motivation able to reason and converse, forces ofnature such as winds or the sun, components in games, unseen or unknown sources of chance, etc. Almost anything can be subject to anthropomorphism. The term derives from a combination of Greek ἄνθρωπος (anthrōpos), human and μορφή (morphē), shapeor form.
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I am sure that it will be obvious to most of you why these words are important to people of faith. We humans have the propensity to attribute human characteristics to inanimate objects, to animals, clouds, gadgets. We are geared to look for human resonances- and to recognise the human face almost before we are born. It is in our wiring (there we go- I just anthropomorphised my computer!)
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So this has to raise questions as to the effect that this has on the development of religious belief, and the shape of our personal encounters with the divine.
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Atheists might suggest that all religion grows from these human characteristics.
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There are Christian voices that also point out how modernity has become mingled with culture to such an extent that we have remade God in our own image- a western, capitalistic, rationalistic, democratic God. My own personal pocket Jesus.
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It is very difficult to take this Jesus out of our pocket. We tend to just put him in a different one.
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It is perhaps interesting to make a comparison of how the different religious faiths deal with this issue of anthropomorphism- Anthropomorphism of God is rejected by Judaism and Islam, which both believe that God is beyond human limits of physical comprehension, a view which has resonance with the Gregory of Nysa’s ‘holy darkness’. The Jewish rejection of the anthropomorphism of God intensified after the advent of Christianity.
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But we Christians, unlike our brothers and sisters in other faiths have continued to seek encounter God through the face of Jesus. Whatever this means…
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What is left in me is a conviction that God became flesh and lived amongst us. And we have seen his Glory. (John 1)
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But this incarnation is of a God who lives in us, not a personification of what we are cast heavenwards.
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Hmmmm…

3 thoughts on “Anthropomorphising God…

  1. A wise and lovely perspective, Chris, and one that I share, centred on this person Jesus.

    All rational people of faith find themselves engaging with the Jesus question: avatar, prophet, rabbi, inspired human (even an atheist might go for that one), incarnation of God (whatever that really means)? God is there for all – but exactly how and how much?

    The Christian perspective – logos, son, a creature and creator, comprehensible glimpse of incomprehensible other, immanent hypostasis of transcendent ousia. Oh, those polysyllabic Christmas day sermons come flowing out! Bottom line – Jesus is different!

    I find the defensive biblical additions of certainty difficult (e.g. I am the way, the truth etc.), but they date from a context of persecution and necessary adolescent confidence. It’s easy to slide towards syncretism – but that person Jesus just keeps on getting in the way!

  2. The curry is calling Andrew.

    And there we can discuss what on earth is meant by ‘immanent hypostasis of transcendent ousia’ as I think that this sentence should be used more often…

    Cheers!

    Chris

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