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-


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
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.
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!)
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.
Atheists might suggest that all religion grows from these human characteristics.
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.
It is very difficult to take this Jesus out of our pocket. We tend to just put him in a different one.
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.
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…
What is left in me is a conviction that God became flesh and lived amongst us. And we have seen his Glory. (John 1)
But this incarnation is of a God who lives in us, not a personification of what we are cast heavenwards.

Religious fundamentalism and the hope of peace…

My friend and former neighour Terry sent me a link to this;

This seems to be a move to bring together different religion around a central universal higher law of compassion. Here is a quote from the Charter for compassion site;

The Charter for Compassion is a collaborative effort to build a peaceful and harmonious global community. Bringing together the voices of people from all religions, the Charter seeks to remind the world that while all faiths are not the same, they all share the core principle of compassion and the Golden Rule. The Charter will change the tenor of the conversation around religion. It will be a clarion call to the world.

The woman who appears to have been the catalyst for this move is called Karen Armstrong. It seems that she is a former Nun, who has become a controversial figure after writing about her own experience of religion, and increasingly becoming a proponent of comparative religion.

I found another clip from a TED speech that Karen Armstrong gave;

I found Karen’s point about religious people ‘preferring to be right rather than compassionate’ to be all too true.

Terry and I are chewing on this a little. Is it good, or bad, or indifferent?

Is fundamentalism always bad? I have seen Christian fundamentalism at close quarters, red in tooth and claw, and can no longer stand close to much of it. The damage that can be done in this context is great but…

I have also seen passion and fervency lead to great compassion, and acts of service and self sacrifice.

And as a follower of Jesus, I do believe him to be the place and person towards whom we are all heading. I am happy to engage with other faiths, but I would always approach them, as much as I am able, through my understanding of who Jesus is.

So what would he think of this charter?

I wonder if he would look at Karen Armstrong, see all that she is and say- ‘well done, good and faithful servant…’

What do you think? I reckon it’s time for another vote…