Much Peace, Love, and Grooviness,
As humans, we've come up with many ways to arrest the Divine and lock Him or Her up in prisons of our own design. Often we shut God inside the building we worship in and leave Him or Her there until we return. Other times we create an idol by limiting the Divine to our favorite image. One of the most popular places to imprison the Deity is between the covers of the Bible.
People behave differently in church. We sit still; we dress nicely. These principles are hammered into when we are little children. "Whisper, whisper, in God's house. Tiptoe, tiptoe, in God's house." "Sit still, be quiet, don't laugh-its not reverent." Ministers often warn their flock about forgetting God during the work week and doing things and saying things that are 'sinful' which wouldn't be done in the church building. An even more detrimental effect of this childhood indoctrination is that it prevents us from seeing God working in the world outside church. God can't be in a public school student's smile when he or she learns to read, because it isn't church.
Since prehistoric times, humans have been creating images of the Deity for themselves. These statues of gods and goddesses have been found by many archeologists. They range from simply totems that were present in every household to elaborate statues and paintings that graced palaces and temples. These images are commonly described as idols. However, for the purpose of this essay, the word idol will be used to refer to a dominant and exclusive image of the divine. The word image will be used to refer to a visual depiction of the Divine that is neither dominant nor exclusive. Both the Old and New Testaments both warn about idols. This isn't so much a command to never invoke earthly images for the Divine-Jesus himself uses earthly images to describe heavenly ideas in the parables, but it is a warning to avoid allowing one image of the divine to dominant religion so thoroughly that it defines it.
In Christianity, the dominant image of the Divine is the Father God. Even more specifically the image is that of an old, white haired man sitting on a throne in the clouds-everybody's grandfather. While the Father God is a very legitimate image of the Divine and was used numerous times by Jesus, to make this the only acceptable image of the Divine creates a mental idol.
While the majority of recorded images Jesus used for the Divine are indeed male, there are several instances in the Canonical Gospels where Jesus invokes a feminine image for the Divine. In the parable of the yeast, (Matt. 13: 33) the kingdom of heaven is compared to yeast being mixed into flour by a woman.* A woman is the mixer, the person in control of the world as represented by the flour. A woman is distributing the yeast-knowledge and salvation-throughout the world. If the woman is taken to represent the same entity as the sower in parable of the weeds among the weed, which is located just before the parable of the yeast, then she represents the son of man-or God's redeeming presence in the world. Other times, such as in the parable of the mustard seed, the Divine is compared to something entirely non-human and genderless.
Images of the Divine can be harmless crutches used by humans to help us partially grasp something we can not fully understand. Images do not become idols until they take over and dominate out thought patterns to the extent of pushing out any competing images. As humans, we must be careful to avoid locking the Divine up within a single idol and refusing to allow him or her to expression himself or herself to us in new and different ways.
The final and most prevalent jail for the Divine is inside the Bible. This is a mistake made my many Christians. We read the Bible and think, "Hey, that's all there is." We forget the most important message of the parables-that is, we forget that the Divine can be found in the common and in the everyday.
Various verses from the New Testament are used to justify this belief. Second Timothy 3:16 reads, "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness."NRSV What modern teachers forget is that when these lines where penned the New Testament as we know it had not yet been written or defined. The 27 books we know as the canon were first listed together in 325 A.D. by Athanasius and weren't rigidly defined until 397 A.D.** Before then, which letters and gospels had the most authority varied from area to area and even from congregation to congregation. Even if that was not the case, using a Bible verse as the sole justification for the Bible is rather circular reasoning.
The New Testament is an important document for Christianity. All the canonical scripture is, indeed, useful; however, it isn't necessary for us to limit ourselves to what has been deemed most orthodox by humans. It should be realized that the Divine did not select the books of the canon (humans, often with personal agendas, did) and that other letters and gospels existed and still do. One-the letter to Laodicea-is referred to in Colossians 4:16. Limiting the expressions of the Divine to what the world accepts conforms us to this world. In searching the scriptures day and night, we shouldn't limit ourselves to what the world has chosen. In doing so, in searching for lost or suppressed expressions of the Divine, we can unlock the doors of the prison we have put God in, and allow the Deity the freedom to reveal Himself or Herself to us and to renew our minds and spirits in the way the Divine sees fit, rather than forcing the Divine to limit Himself of Herself to those images we find fit.
Unless otherwise noted all scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version.
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