Picturing God and Things of the Spirit (2)

Donald used images from the public Internet, possibly protected by copyright, to illustrate some of the points discussed. The images and specific discussion of them are omitted from this transcript. —Ed

Donald: First we’ll briefly review what I shared with you last week, and then apply it maybe more directly to the specific question of how we come to see God in our mind. Last week, I focused primarily on how we come to understand visual information. However, that feeds our understanding of what we see of God in our mind. No one has seen Christ, no one has seen God. What about other things of the Spirit? How do we come to understand that? Do you do have an image of God or Christ in your mind as you’re praying, or is it a blank spot? 

As I indicated last week, there are two ways in which I believe human beings approach looking at visual content. When you picture the face of God, what expression does he wear? Is the God of your imagination stern? Serious? Determined? Angry? Or is he aloof, uninterested, and apathetic? The manner in which you answer the question will tell a lot about your own spirituality. 

How God was depicted centuries ago and how God is depicted today are radically different. When we think about God, lots of things come to mind; Loving, compassionate, humble, servant, forgiving, graceful, wise, teaching, righteous, holy, healer, almighty, omnipotent, merciful, sovereign, just, trustworthy, king, father, divine, supreme. So I’m not really sure that it’s fair to suggest that one image in our mind can actually represent our spiritual journey. 

Are there other names that you can come up with? Has anybody come up with something beyond that? What are some words that you would use? Or are some of them words that you wouldn’t have used?

David: I would use the wordindescribable” to describe God.

Donald: That actually doesn’t picture much. It’s just admitting that you probably don’t have a clear picture in your mind of what God might look like.

Don: I tend to see the gracious side of God I think.

Donald: If you were to try to visualize grace, what would it look like? it’s not a thing. It’s a concept, like most of the words in the list. A father might be visualized but most of the words are concepts. They are not items you can take into a studio and photograph.

Kiran: When I think of God, I think of compassion. I used to think of him as angry, but my view of changed. When Peter denied Jesus three times, Jesus gazed at him with compassion. That’s what comes to my mind.

Donald: Our way of thinking about God is influenced through the narrative, through the Word.

C-J: I see the words “transcendental” and “energy”. Energy is pervasive yet has no shape or form, but it communicates. I’m also very receptive in all these things, because, for me, my consciousness at this point in my evolution is very central to what you experienced: Concrete, time and place, experiential—all the things listed here. I agree with Kiran: When I think of my God personally, here and now, very compassionate, filled with grace, transformational, loving.

Donald: I think God has changed, and what human beings consider God to be has changed. I think we have got a different picture today. Certainly, praise, music, and church are quite different from the traditional.

Jay: In my mind’s eye, “timeless” is a word that resonates for me when I think about God. It is indeed interesting to consider that God and our picture of him has changed through the ages, which seems a little counter-intuitive to how we’ve always thought of God as steadfast and unchanging. He changes also even as we change.

Donald: Exactly. Things change as we grow older. We may want a father as a child, but “father” can come with some baggage—not everybody has had the same experience of a father relationship. 

[Donald went on to review last week’s discussion of visualizing abstract concepts vs. concrete things, semiotics, and visual composition.—Ed.]

Last week we talked about visual semiotics, but aural semiotics—especially, music and hymns—are also very important in aids or prompts in helping us visualize God and things of the spirit. Here is a list of songs that most of us are familiar with: 

The titles alone don’t do justice to the beauty of the lyrics. “Jesus Friend of Sinners” almost gives me goosebumps. (Having had an educator and a photographer address this topic of “visualizing” things of the spirit, it would be interesting to have a musician’s perspective also.)  

[Donald then went on to illustrate the visual perspective using a series of images most of which are copyrighted and therefore cannot be reproduced here.—Ed]

Don: In putting together your class notes on this topic, Donald, were you surprised by anything? Particularly, I’m interested in the issue of symmetry, and the warmness that seems to be depicted.

Donald: That is what surprised me—the symmetry, the formal balance, of most religious imagery.

C-J: I think the way that we’re wired is binary—up, down, left, right, cause and effect. And so it’s our instinct to do a comparative, in order for the species to survive. And then through that, we can kind of telescope out or draw in, through lessons in our lives, our diversity of experience perceptually—a rainy day, a cloudy day, compared to a sunshine day, seashores vs. mountains. But when we’re developing using our senses as a newborn, it’s pleasurable/non-pleasurable.

Donald: I would agree. But I would say reading your Bible is a private experience, and I’m suggesting that when you go to church and listen to a sermon, is a sermon being put together for you to have a lot of margin? Or is it pretty centered? This is the takeaway. I’m not saying that that’s bad. I’m just saying that it’s very prescribed. I’m not even sure that those of us that visualize things that are spiritual realize that we are centering things, we’re not putting Christ at the edge of the image—we’re putting him very much on center. So that surprised me. 

In some cases the warm sepia tones of the images may be trying to make it look historical, but it also might suggest warmth in a relationship. 

Robin: As a child, things that encouraged me to think on the spiritual plane were mainly visual. In middle age I don’t disregard the visual but now music speaks to me powerfully. On my daily long commute I turn on the Christian radio station. That is really a spiritual experience for me. I sing along. So I think at different times of our lives, maybe different things will speak to us spiritually.

Donald: That’s why I brought up music earlier. Our house is always filled with music. And if you really want to find your place spiritually, sometimes music is the best way to get there. It’s not as direct as an image. I remember when I was asked to do a Sabbath School lesson, many years ago. It was very hard because you’re trying to make it literal and everybody has a different picture. But it changes, it evolves. What we saw as child to be the picture of God should be different.

C-J: The thing that I find unique about music is it’s a vibration. And our brains respond to vibrations, consciously and subconsciously, because the energy that flows through our brain creates a vibration, like energy. It’s electrical. I think that’s why music is so emotive, so transcendental. If I’m not anxious or something, I listen to music, and I listen to Christian music quite a bit in my home. 

Recently, I’ve been listening to music from almost 40 years ago, when I first came into the Lord, really broken and lost. It makes me cry every time I listen to it, because it reminds me of that time, but it’s so humbling in terms of the intentional purpose of God. And that’s not an image—that is this vibration that has changed.

Carolyn: I think music forms our whole life, not just with God, but our relational life. I think we can be drawn to the uppermost. When we see and feel God as light and vibration, we don’t need words, we are drawn right into the beautiful simplicity. It touches every part of your body and puts it at center stage. 

Reinhard: Pictures are a powerful medium. They can simplify many complex concepts discussed in the Bible—Daniel with the animals, the beast and dragons of Revelation become more alive, more vivid, more meaningful through pictures. Jesus’ parables are abstract, but pictures such as him picking up the Lost Sheep stir our imagination about God the Father, centerpiece of the Old Testament, and God the Son, centerpiece of the New Testament, and the Holy Spirit. The picture I get is of a loving God, a compassionate God, who cares for us. Pictures of God stir our imagination and curiosity and our memory in the same way that pictures of our loved ones help us to remember them.  

Spirituality is a dynamic and invisible entity, not capturable in a static visual. The images of God affirm and strengthen our faith about God. They encourage us to read the Scripture. All of us want to see something concrete, because seeing is believing.

Donald: I think you’re absolutely right. We become informed by seeing a variety of images or representations of God, and just as some of us are drawn to certain types of music, some of us will be drawn to certain types of images. But I would venture a guess that some people in this class don’t want anybody to visualize for them. They don’t want somebody else to say: “This is what God looks like.”

C-J: Where you see sternness in an image of God, I see commitment to a mission. I am not afraid of that. I am all in. Let’s do this! I find it empowering that there’s clarity, that there’s preparation that has been done. And when I change the paradigm from what I was taught as a child, Hell hath no fury. When God is upset, people die. But learning that if you get on board and understand what is really happening here is that none should perish, that’s a profound sense of acceptance and love, of where you are at an important time. God is calling you to learn something, to look at something in a different way.

Donald: Having a variety of pictures of God in our mind is appropriate. One image of God is probably not sufficient. We may want to focus on one aspect of God, so having multiple pictures of God in our mind is useful. 

Culturally, one thing that no one has mentioned is that most pictures of God are of a blue-eyed Caucasian. How does that fit into a world of people that are of color? In a very diverse world, what does that say?

C-J: It’s a very good question, because for five years, I went to a Chinese Christian church, which had many different tribal representations—Cantonese, Mandarin, Taiwanese. Their cultural experience, their language, was different; but the one thing that was central was they were invisible in the Christian world. I told them if they took the word “Chinese” off the sign in the front of the church, they would fill it;  but instead they were isolating themselves, saying “This is only for Chinese people.” They wondered why they were not growing. I told them it was because their messaging was very narrow for this group of people.

But they had a reason for it. It’s taken me a long time to understand, but what you just said is the key. When we do this, we can identify better. The expectation is unclear. As you noted, there are Muslims who have converted, there are Chinese, you can go globally all over through different ethnic groups and demographics and yet, they too are faced with this. “Where do I fit in this narrative?”

Anonymous: The westernized images ofChristdon’t bother me. Some of them are beautiful, I have no problem with them, such as Christ standing at the United Nations building, knocking; or standing at the door without a knob—“If you want me to come in, open the door!” This and other images like the lost sheep on Jesus’ shoulders, I really appreciate. They give me something to see in my mind as I think of Jesus. 

But when I think of Jesus or talk to God, it’s his word that talks to me more than anything else. I cannot see a whole image of God as a person doing something to me, but I can hear him talking to me, and the words affect my feelings, much more than images.

Kiran: I too never felt bad about the westernized depiction of Christ. Some of the churches in Detroit that are predominantly African-American portray a dark-skinned Jesus in stained glass. But knowing that he is Jewish, and Jewish people are white, I never had a problem with the white-looking Jesus. But I think the square-jawed, blue-eyed, blonde-haired Hollywood version of Jesus is a bit much. The best depiction of Jesus I liked was that in the recent TV series The Chosen

Jay: The symmetry of religious images leads us back to our conversations about seeing religious things in a concrete way or an abstract way. In my mind, it seems as if things that are on the periphery seem to be more abstract than the things that are in the center. Being dominant, they seem to be more concrete to us. Religious imagery seems to be another attempt for us to make something concrete out of something that’s abstract. How does that either strengthen or weaken our relationship with God?

Donald: My background is visual, but I think music plays a very, very significant role in spiritual matters. I wish we could spend some time on that with somebody who can speak to it. It’s like reading a book vs. watching the movie. When you read a book you can fill it in your mind’s eye, where a movie shows you. People typically think reading a book is a much more engaging experience. Perhaps music is like that too. Because if you try to show me specifically what something looks like, you’re not giving me a lot of wiggle room for my understanding of spiritual matters.

C-J: People in the Sufi faith, and Native Americans, use rhythm. They use drums. They use chant. As they’re in the circle, science has studied what happens in their bodies, and their heartbeats all align to the same rhythm. And when that happens, the chemistry in their brain is also aligning to the same rhythm. When you think about that experience, it’s transcendental. 

It doesn’t have any imagery attached to it. Instead, it has an expansive quality of vibration. The first time I read that, I’m like, “Of course!” And it goes back to music being all around us, whether it’s the melody of a bird, or a babbling brook or mother cooing to a child that calms us, that centers us, that allows us to experience beyond our initial “I am hungry, I’m afraid, I can’t sleep” to “I am safe. I am loved, I can relax.” It’s very profound.

Carolyn: We are made in Christ’s image and because of that we visually have depicted what Jesus looks like. Therefore can we dare assume that God also looks like Jesus?

Donald: That’s a big question. Because it really almost hurt your mind to think that God and Christ and the Holy Spirit are one and the same.

Carolyn: But I think this is when I want to hear his voice. I can have the Bible open, I can be reading, but I’m still looking for the answer. And I’m just listening for his voice.

Donald: Another way in which we come to understand God is through silence, quietness, leaving it to our minds to fill in the blanks of understanding.

C-J: Image doesn’t have to be dimensional. Image can be experiential. So when we say to someone, “Here’s the image, we’re watching a child, which displays kindness,” they go, “He is the image of his father, in the sense of his generosity and kindness.” It doesn’t have to be three-dimensional. When I think of God as being made in the image, and being transformed like this, it’s not in a dimension.

Donald: That’s very good. So if these are the images of God, that doesn’t mean it’s the face of God. If I understood you perfectly.

C-J: That is correct. But I wouldn’t even put a label on it. Because I believe that God is energy and communicates differently than we do.

Donald: Next week, David will inform the class about a book he’s working on and seek your thoughts on the book cover images generated by Dall-E, CHatGPT’s sister app for creating images from text.

C-J: Just a little sidebar. I’m really disturbed about how much authority we are giving ChatGPT or other things in our references. Because we’re giving authority to a machine that humans created with this huge database, instead of using and trusting our own relationship with ourselves and other people in humanity. And every time somebody makes a reference to these artificial intelligences, even though they’re vast, and they’re quicker, and they have all this data in a server, I miss human creativity showing up present in that moment, experiential and I’m like, I really hate having people defer to something online.

Donald: I think that speaks to the whole discussion that we’re dealing with right now, and that is: Human understanding of spiritual matters. Whether that means a book that you’ve found to inform yourself spiritually, or a song that’s been produced, or a photograph that’s been assembled, independent of how it’s been done, they all represent attempts by humanity to come closer to their understanding of spiritual matters. 

So, I prefer us to stay with the idea of trying to share and coming to understand content so that it brings us closer to a relationship with Christ. The people who create images to inform this spiritual journey need to be careful about it, because it’s important. Not everybody can do it.

Don: We’ll pick it up at that level next week. One of the questions that keeps resonating in my mind is: Is the symmetrical, fairly bland, warm-color view of God a condition of the fall? Or is it a condition from before the fall? Does God want us to have a symmetrical view of him? Or is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the cause and effect—“Because of this, you get that.” Is that something which is a condition of the fall?

Reinhard: If we go back to the original plan, maybe we won’t get the perfect situation like we had in garden of Eden. But God allowed us to get redemption by His blood, allowed us to inherit the kingdom of heaven. To Carolyn’s question about being made in the image of the Father: Genesis 26, God said “Let Us make man in our image.” Jesus claimed that whoever has seen him has seen the Father. So in terms of the appearance, we have a three-dimensional image of God. God the Father is just like the Son, I think there’s no question about that. Of course, God is more powerful, more knowing, and he has all the power, while we have limited power.

Don: His ways are not our ways, his thoughts are not our thoughts.

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