Amy Mitchell is a homeschooling mom blogging about church, culture, and spirituality at http://unchainedfaith.com/ In her spare time, she dabbles in cheesy fiction, which you can read at http://lovewhineandcheese.wordpress.com/
I’ve called myself a Christian for more than twenty years. For the better part of that, the image in my head when I thought of God looked very much like this:
Regarding this cartoon, Gary Larson wrote,
“First, I made God look the way I think most of us are pretty sure he looks. Secondly, I made sure he was really winning hands down. Even if Norman had only ten points it would have meant that he beat God to the buzzer at least once, and someone would have gotten mad.”*
God didn’t start out looking that way to me. When I was around eight years old, I began to develop a concept of God. Somehow, I had decided that God must be more than some nebulous cloud or an energy force—God must be a Someone. I remember sitting in my mother’s sewing room, the whir of the machine and my mother’s soft humming in the background while I stretched out on the floor reading. I looked up from my book long enough to ask, “What’s God like?”
My mother gave some wholly unsatisfying answer about God being everywhere and in everything. Even at that age I thought that was stupid. I decided she must be wrong, but I filed it away for later contemplation.
By the time I was fourteen, I was attending a Presbyterian church. Somewhere around then, God became the image above. I’m sure this must be at least in some way due to the language used to describe God: He, Father, Lord. I also had a sense of God as Cosmic Know-It-All, and that He was reading my every thought (often disapprovingly).
It didn’t help matters that in college, I met many people for whom that picture of God was deeply meaningful. My roommate had never had a father in her life—she had been adopted by a single woman. She used to refer to God as “Daddy,” and for her, the idea that God was, in some way, a replacement for the earthly father she lacked was important. I, on the other hand, couldn’t relate to that at all, no matter how hard I tried.
For a long time, I thought of God as Someone who cared very deeply about whether or not I was committing particular sins. He was interested in things like how much money I gave to church and what I was doing with my genitals, but He couldn’t be bothered with whether or not I was carrying out the commands for peace, justice, and love. Partly because of that and partly because I tend toward an intellectual view of spirituality anyway, I could talk about God, but I felt very little connection.
It took involvement with a much more conservative evangelical church to jar me out of complacency.
The strange thing about it was that if I believed even half of what I heard at that church, I would have come away with an image of God that was far less grandfatherly than what Gary Larson had in mind. Week after week, the message was, “God loves you, but he has Expectations for how you live your life—and you’re failing.” It was a more extreme version of what I’d always heard in church. There was the usual droning about sex and who puts what were and when and the constant finger-wagging about tithing and supporting the church’s financial needs. On top of that, however, was an overlay about who I am as a woman and what my role should be in and out of the church.
“God is male. Jesus is male. We don’t know about the Holy Spirit, but probably male. The Church is female. Therefore, in a perfect parallel, God made men first and women to submit to them.”
Officially, of course, the church claimed that God wasn’t male or female. But every last bit of the theology pertaining to women indicated otherwise. For the first time, I began to see what was wrong with the picture of God I carried around with me. I thought, If God is really an old, white man, then everything I hear about the limitations on women must be correct. Since those things are not true, God can’t possibly be male. I had already given up on a good bit of the conservative evangelical theology, so it wasn’t hard to let go of my image of God.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have a lot of guidance at church in sorting this out. The world is wide, though, and I began to read. I read books that didn’t include gendered pronouns for God. I read books in which God was not staring down at me from Heaven, arms crossed and a scowl on His face, disapproving of my actions. I “met” people online who had vastly different ideas about God than the ones I’d held for so long.
I stopped being sure there was such a thing as God. It felt like a dark, dank cave, cold and lonely. It was in that space that I begged God to be real again.
The very first spark of believing again came in a strange form. I was at our local science museum with my kids, and we watched this multimedia presentation there. In it, the museum’s paleontologist said that our region was once under a tropical sea—the evidence of which is our vast rock salt reserves. It may not sound beautiful to you, but it absolutely amazed me. My first thought was, How would that even be possible if not for the power of God?
We all find beauty, meaning, grace, and love in different ways. For my daughter, it’s in the natural world and our furry, feathery, and scaly friends. For my son it’s in music, movement, and the relationships he forms with others. For me, it’s in the wonder of creation—all of it, from whatever started the Universe to the geological history of this planet, from the outer reaches of the galaxy to the possibility that We Are Not Alone. Like my children, I also find holiness (and perhaps an imprint of God) in nature, art, and people.
Today, I’m not sure what my image of God is, but I know I sense God’s essence in so many things, and I believe that’s enough for now.
*Larson, Gary. The Prehistory of the Far Side. Universal Press, 1989.