Re-Imagining God

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

I want to start with a question: how did you react to the name of this column being “Re-imagining God.” Did it make you curious, nervous, annoyed, bored – or maybe you didn’t notice at all.

I ask because about twenty years ago a group organized a conference called “Re-imagining: A Global Theological Conference By Women” that stirred quite a bit of controversy. Although there were a lot of concerns, many seem to have revolved around the very notion of “re-imagining,” as if the patterns for imagining God, Christ, the church and more were so settled that invocations of “Sophia” (from Proverbs) or using feminine imagery for God was at the least beyond the pale and at the worst downright heretical. Most of the outcry, as it turned out, came from folks who weren’t there and surprised actual attendees. I had a seminary classmate, for instance, who attended and later was shocked at all the concern, and years later I spoke with a colleague where I now teach who also recalled with some dismay the toll it took on those who attended.

I thought of all this when I read today’s Gospel passage and was struck once again by the power and emotion of Jesus’ words to Jerusalem, when he asks, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

Jesus, let us note, employs a feminine image for himself and, to the degree that we confess Jesus reveals the essential character and disposition of the One who sent him, also for God.

Which leads me to a second question: if Jesus can describe himself and God as a mother hen, can we not also employ a variety of images to describe God? Scripture, after all, is replete with a variety of images for God, both male and female. For instance, God is described also as a protective mother eagle (Deut 32:10-11), a fierce mother bear (Hosea 13:8), and a mother giving birth (Isa 42:14) and breast-feeding her child (Isa 49:15).

All of which brings me to yet a third question: when we only describe God with the typical male language of king and father, etc., do we run the risk of limiting our imagination? I’m particularly concerned with finding images that make God more accessible to women, but frankly I think we are all impoverished when we can only imagine God in the narrowest of terms.

Not that I don’t have some sympathy for the anxiety that attends employing more creative imagery. We are worried, I think, that we’ll go too far and we’ll name or imagine God amiss. Indeed, at a recent faculty gathering to talk about curriculum revision at my school one of my colleagues worried about employing the phrase “biblical imagination.” “After all,” this colleague reminded us, “most of the heretics used biblical imagination, too.” Which I suppose goes to the heart of it all: we are afraid that we’ll get our imagery for God wrong and that we’ll be declared heretical.

But that’s just the thing: isn’t all of our imagery ultimately, if not wrong, at least inadequate?

This past weekend I was preaching on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 – “the message of the cross is foolishness….” – and it occurred to me that Paul also had a very clear and concrete image of God … and it looked nothing like Jesus! Which is what occasioned such a crisis for him. In some ways, we might imagine that the rest of Paul’s ministry was spent working out what everything looked like in light of this new and rather shocking image of a crucified God. I don’t know if Paul ever got it exactly “right” – as he also employs lot of images from the natural and human world to try to capture God’s work in the world – but I do think he kept coming back to the surprising, unexpected, foolish imagine of Jesus hanging on the cross around which to cluster all of his other images.

All of which brings me to an idea. What if we put up a picture of a cross somewhere visible – sanctuary, narthex, fellowship hall, whatever. The key is that it is surrounded by bulletin board material or poster board or something that folks can put pictures around. And over the next few weeks we invite folks to put pictures around the cross that help them imagine who God is. People might draw pictures, but they might just as easily cut them out from magazines. No explanations are necessary. They just keep putting up pictures until we have a collection of images that together gives witness to how we imagine God at work in our world and lives. These pictures can be traditional – perhaps they’ll put up different pictures of the cross, or painting of the holy family – or untraditional – maybe a harried mom or dad taking care of children. The issue isn’t getting it “right,” it’s trying to articulate how we imagine God at work in our lives.

Will some of the pictures occasion conversation, even cause a stir? I hope so. Because that’s the point: these pictures aren’t meant to define God – as if we could! – rather they are invitations for us to learn how to articulate our own faith and questions and imagination about God. You see, I think that as valuable as orthodoxy is for keeping the church moving more or less in one direction more or less together, it can also stifle the imagination and leave a lot of people out of the picture. And I’m interested in giving our folks a chance to develop some confidence that they can imagine and give witness to the God they’ve come to know through their life in the church and in the world.

I know there’s a lot going on in this passage, Working Preacher, and lots of directions in which you could go. So take this as just one idea for opening up the passage in a way that might kindle in your folks a more vivid Christian imagination – not the right imagination, or the orthodox imagination, mind you, just a Christian one, which I’ll define simply and expansively as the attempt to understand God in light of Jesus.

Blessings on your week and proclamation, and thank you for your own regular and faithful imaginative work at giving voice to the gospel through your preaching!

Yours in Christ,