January 27, 2019
I am not atheist. I am a believer. This is my testimony.
While I have heard sermons about the prohibition against constructing images of God, recorded in the Old Testament as ordered by God, I often tried to understand more fully the particular problem with the graven image. People, so it was said, bowed down to the images, worshipping them instead of God. What puzzled me was the apparent ending of the prohibition when Christianity named a person to be a representative of God. Indeed, people bowed down to worship Jesus, who, according to the third century gathering of bishops in Rome, was one of a three-part God. In addition to the worship of Jesus, the Christian church not only allowed but encouraged the making of many religious images that dominated the life of church members. So — is it ok or is it not ok to make an image of God?
The academic discipline of semiology has been helpful in my working through this big question. Semiology, in brief, is the science of sign-making. People make signs to signify something. For example, people in my neck of the woods use the word “eye” to signify one of two body organs on the face of humans and other animals with which said creatures “see.” The sign is the word “eye.” What is signified is an organ of seeing.
Who in the world came up with the sign “eye”? Well, in brief, sign-making is a human specialty. People have been making signs ever since brains were developed fully enough to sense the need to “objectify” reality.
In very fact, we humans continue to make and modify signs. Examples: “froyo” (frozen yogurt) and “listicle” (a piece of writing or other content presented wholly or partly in the form of a list). And we sometimes make shifts in what a sign signifies. Example. The sign “text” has been modified into the sign “to text.”
Obviously sign-making is an extremely complex activity, quite complex enough to birth a science of signs. But sign-making seems to humans to be ideal for signifying God. Thus the myriad of signs.
How has semiology, then, helped me think through the conundrum of making images that stand for or represent God? My thoughts on this question received a boost when my mother-in-law gifted me with a book entitled Your God is Too Small by J.B. Phillips. Amazon describes the content as follows: “This forty-year-old [older than that!] Christian classic and bestseller is a study group favorite; this book challenges readers’ conventional views about God and encourages them to search for a meaningful redefinition of a higher power that is relevant to contemporary existence.”
How is our God too small? That is, how have we all through history, all around the world, in all religions, in all isms made signs for God that fall far short of accurate signification? This question has taken on more import as I have come to encounter ultimate reality. Through reading, meditation, mindful living, aesthetic explorations, prayer, private and group worship I have seen just a glimmer, I have sensed just a link, I have just a breath of something so vast and small, so far and near, so old and not yet born that at times the only sign I can come up with is “NOW”. What I am referring to is beyond, way beyond what G-O-D meant to me as a child. Indeed it is way beyond what G-O-D has meant to me as an adult.
I am reminded of the burning bush encountered by Moses. “I AM THAT I AM.”
Gracious goodness, how in the world can we make signs to represent THAT? Certainly my own creation “NOW” is totally inadequate. Any sign we create is going to signify something far short of ultimate reality. Any sign we create is going to tempt us to think that’s the real thing, leading us to make a graven image.
Our G-O-D is far too small.
And yet I believe. I belief in ultimate reality be that the ultimate word or the ultimate sign or the ultimate being. And in some moments at some places, I encounter the burning bush that says “I AM THAT I AM.” So instead of being tempted to make a graven image, I take off my hat, take off my shoes and bow down not to an idol but to unshaped holiness of which, curiously enough, I am a part.
In my 80s — what later life is for
an 80-page chapbook
a gift for your senior friend
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