Shattering Images of God

Ganesh - a metaphor of god

The First Cause

It may be an illusion, this world we inhabit: a virtual reality machine, a dream, a joke. But if so, who’s running it all? If it’s all smoke and mirrors, surely something is tending the fire, polishing the glass?

Perhaps the Big Bang is truth, and a singularity randomly popped into existence, just as quanta wink in and out, without someone or something controlling it. Alternately, quantum fluctuations may have created a series of Big Bounces, resulting in one multiple universes. Some people imagine there was no beginning, that space always existed. When conditions were right, time manifested, and the universe-building began. No god required.

It’s hard to conceive of, a thing that arises on its own out of nothing. Equally difficult to fathom is the idea that there was not an arising at all, that the universe simply was. As Alan Lightman points out, we have no language to describe this kind of thing. English, at any rate, assumes the existence of cause and effect, beginning and end. Timelessness is unspeakable. Even to suppose that the universe “appeared from wherever things originate,” as Lightman puts it, assumes a primordial state in which “appearance” did not exist. [1] At the same time, it assumes there is a “wherever.”

Can we conceive of eternity? Can we imagine a void out of which matter arises, all by itself, with no Aristotelian “first cause”? Must we posit a deity to make sense of our lives, or God simply that which existed before there was existence? If so, what distinguishes this god from the universe itself? Perhaps God is the field into which the stars expand, the container of all existence, the thing that arises out of nothing, that breathes time into space, that knows and sees its creation.

Seeking God

In classical Christian theology, God exists outside of time and space, a thing beyond the universe. Being timeless, God does not change. Since He (assuming the traditional Christian way of talking about the divine) is unchanging, God is not affected in any way by what occurs around Him. After all, if we are affected, we change. Surely an emotionally-moved deity would change, as well.

This is hard to understand, for the god of the Bible is relational. He talks to Adam and Eve, erupts with wrath at the pain and suffering He sees, feels jealousy when His chosen people prefer pagan gods to Him. As Jesus, God wept. How can we say such a deity is not touched, is not moved?

It’s hard to imagine, but we humans can’t really image God at all. When we talk about God as a mother or father, as the wind, the universe, as all the universes beyond us, as a rock, the ocean, the sky, we are using metaphors. It’s the only way we have to make sense of that which lies beyond our imagination. Archaeological evidence indicates that, ever since we have been human, and perhaps before, we have imagined a maker, a powerful force to which we can pray and dance, and from which we ask for salvation. Whether we want the rain to fall or our souls to live on after our bodies die, we have sought assistance from a deity.

Eastern Religions

Of course, this is not universally true. Humanism, Existentialism, and Socialism are philosophies of living, ways to understand the meaning of life, but without recourse to a god or after-life consciousness. These days, it seems the Eastern religions of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism focus more on developing the mind and living in harmony than on what happens after death.

However, this was not always so. K’ung, the founder of Confucianism, spoke of a god and believed in a kind of Heaven. In Buddhism, a pantheon of spirits and demons populate realms of the afterlife. Taoism, especially as practiced by the underprivileged peasants who were vulnerable to illness, death, and uncertainty, included a cult of ancestor spirits and local deities. According to Taoist teachings, the Jade Emperor rules over Heaven, judging the wicked and the good.

Interestingly, when Taoism was young, the more educated and prosperous Taoists sought immortality, not through the worship of some god, nor did they hope to be welcomed into heaven. Rather, they used herbs, exercises, and meditations to perfect their being and become one with the Tao, thus attaining eternal life in this body. Perhaps because their lives were pleasant and interesting, they imagined an eternity on Earth to be divine. [2]

Not everyone feels this way. Some people suffer terribly in this life, and generally, they look to a god to take care of them.

Secularization and Prosperity

This seems to be true throughout the world. Research conducted by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart indicates that when “people have a sense of existential security,” when they feel comfortable, when their lives seem manageable, they lose their dependence on a god. [3] That’s probably why, as technology and medicine improve, and we become better able to control our environment, we have less need of God.

Of course, even in countries with great overall wealth, individuals can go hungry, die from infections, or lose their housing. Racial or ethnic underclasses can feel insecure even when they don’t need to worry about money. Especially with the increased storms brought about by global warming, we can all experience trauma and tragedy. When our world is turned upside down, we sometimes seek a god we never thought about before.

Sometimes, though, tragedy can make some of us lose our god. I’ve spoken with jaded and wounded people who deny that a deity exists. As they talk, though, it becomes clear they don’t disbelieve in a deity so much as refuse to acknowledge one. They feel abused and abandoned. In their hurt and anger, they turn away, scorning their god as one might scorn a faithless lover. Convinced that if God cared for them, God would not let them suffer, they prefer to believe there is no higher power. Deep down, though, they long for that divine embrace.

It Matters What We Believe

But regardless of how much atheism is growing, it is unlikely to ever become the norm. Most people, even if they don’t attend religious services, believe in a god. And why not? Believing in God can give us hope, peace, joy. It can encourage us to care for others, to tend to their wounds.

The problem is less whether or not we believe in a deity and more in what deity we believe in. Depending on who and what we think God is, our beliefs can encourage judgment, shame, and rejection of others. Religious beliefs can cause us to embrace conservative values that limit the rights of women and children, discourage education, and encourage harsh punishments. The way we envision god is the way we treat one another, so it matters what kind of god we believe in. Some gods deserve to be shattered.

Ganesh - a metaphor of god
Photo by Jay R.

The Tower of Babel

According to John T. Strong, that’s what Yahweh did when the people erected a tower to the heavens, for that threatened His sovereignty. It was back when everyone on earth spoke the same language. They came from all over, settling together in the land of Shinar. There they made bricks and mortar, and they said to one another:

“Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

Genesis 11:4

When the Lord saw the city and tower these mortals had built, the Lord said:

“Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so they will not understand one another’s speech.”

Genesis 11:5-7

So the Lord did what they fear and scattered all over the earth, confusing their languages so they would not be able to understand one another.

It is a simple explanation for why we talk in so many different tongues. Yet Strong believes it is more than that. He sees it as the first time Yahweh declares Himself to be the one and only god, and to prohibit all other gods before Him.

In this text, as in one other biblical text, God speaks about Godself in the plural. The only other time we see this is in Genesis 1:26, when God says, “Let us make humankind in our likeness, according to our likeness.”

Once upon a time, apparently, there were many gods. After Babel, there was only one.

Shattering the Stele

In the ancient East, conquering kings erected stones with their likeness on them to show the world that they had control over the land and its people. Etched into these steles were inscriptions of one sort or another, always including the names of these conquerors. An enemy might scratch out the name, which was like scratching out the king himself. Often, they would then erect a stele of their own.

When the people in Shinar decided to build their tower, they did so in order to “make a name” for themselves. Strong asserts that this was tantamount to “scratching off the name of God and replacing it with their own name.” [4]

When Yahweh saw what was going on, he didn’t just replace His name. He shattered the entire stone and scattered the people throughout the lands. By scattering the people, He was shattering his own image, for no longer would he have a people for whom He was God. But what else could he have done? Let people rise to heaven and rule?

Strong notes that the first use of the plural divine occurs at the end of creation, when God makes humans. The second use occurs when he punishes the Shinar contingent for trying to usurp this creative right. As in the Garden of Eden, they sought to be like the gods, and Yahweh would have none of it. Perhaps he really does know the future, sees the atom bomb and the destruction of our planet. Maybe He hopes that if he scatters us, we will think better of our insatiable lust for knowledge and domination. So far, it seems, Yahweh has failed.

Metaphors for God

That’s probably less the fault of this Hebrew god, though, and more the fault of our limited understanding of who God is. Yahweh shattered His stele because we humans had falsified it. We turned it into a monument of our own making, a graven statue, a false idol. We do this all the time. Perhaps that’s because we forget that any way we can conceive of the holy is but a metaphor.

But not everyone thinks this way. Sallie McFague, in her book about models of God, points out that fundamentalist theologians cannot bear to admit that biblical literature is metaphorical. They take literally the idea of God as Father or King, for instance, though what do they do about the times when God is depicted as a mother bear or a woman in labor or as fire or water? What does this say about the god they worship? How does this change their understanding of God the warrior and God the wrathful judge?

Metaphors for the divine are endless. Martha A. Kirk wrote lyrics for the song “Washerwoman God,” imagining that She scrubs and sweats and cleans us, purifying our hearts. Melinda LeBlanc writes of God the Baker who forms us every day. In his book, The Grand Weaver, Ravi Zacharias imagines a god who orchestrates the events of our lives to make us who we are. Think of an image of the holy, and someone has probably thought of it before you.

The Moved Mover

One metaphor for God is the evolving universe. Nothing is static. Everything changes. So why should God not be changeable? Who says that God must exist outside the material world, that God cannot be synonymous with the creation?

This is a fair description of Process Theology, developed by Alfred Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne. To help explain this, Hartshorne uses the metaphor of a body made up of cells. The universe is God’s body, and we and atoms and quarks are the cells. God is in everything, and God is everything.

According to Hartshorne, this God is intimate with us. She moves and changes as we do, because we are Her, and She is us. Hartshorne disagrees with the classical Christian idea that humans have no value except as they reflect the glory of God. If humans didn’t exist, God would still be glorious. We exist only to worship that glory. Did God really create us only for that purpose? Does God desire praise that badly? What sort of God is that?

A process god, on the other hand, creates and cleans and cherishes with the all the creatures of the universe that she formed from Her very being. We humans are not necessarily the greatest or the best co-creator, but what we do either contributes to or destroys the divine force that is life. [5]

This process god is also relational. Of course, other faiths speak of the importance of a relationship with the divine. A god who enters into a relationship with us, though, is a god who changes. Hartshorne has quoted Abraham Joshua Heschel who said that God is the “most moved mover.” [6]

God as Love

This god is also a god of love. What other kind of deity is worthy of our worship, after all? We might fear a tyrant god. We might bow down to it. But would we worship it? Is worship not the reverence of that which has value, the entering into relationship with that which is beloved?

If we want to save our world, to find a path to peace, we must shatter these images of God as warrior and autocrat and replace it with a metaphor of God as Love.

Yet perhaps love is God’s true nature, assuming love isn’t a metaphor of its own. McFague writes that deconstructionists “refuse to acknowledge that there is anything but metaphor.” [7] Is there really nothing but illusion?

Imagine God exists. Imagine that there is some essence, some holiness, some sacred Isness, a thing that exists beyond all things, is all things, and loves all things with a tenderness beyond our comprehension. It might be the universe, it might be the energy of love itself, it might be a pantheon of nature spirits. More likely, it is something bigger and stranger than we can envision.

Beyond Understanding

The Hebrew god’s prohibition against false idols is a kind of shattering of images, like the shattering of the tower. These idols represent what God might be, but is not. When we erect false idols, do we endow them with a reality beyond metaphor, or are they simply symbols of traits a deity might possess? Either way, Yahweh has no patience with them.

So what do we do? Being human, we must transform elusive concepts like godness into something concrete so that we might begin to understand them. That is the power of metaphor. It’s also its danger, for the wrong metaphor can eat at our souls and destroy the nations.

There is a peace beyond understanding. If we are fortunate, we feel that peace now and then, yet we cannot control it, and we certainly cannot describe it. If we think we can define that peace, that love, that Isness, if we create an image of it that feels like truth, it’s time to shatter it. Create metaphors by all means, but be willing to destroy them.

All that’s left is to open ourselves to the relationship, to be still and wait. One day, we might touch that essence that is holy. We might feel that peace and know that love that is beyond all comprehension. In the knowing, though, there will be no image, no explanation, no metaphor that is complete. Shatter them all. Be still and wait.

In faith and fondness,



  1. Lightman, Alan, “What Came Before the Big Bang?,” Harper’s Magazine,, accessed 9/27/21.
  2. See Smart, Ninian, The Religious Experience, fifth ed., Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1966.115-173.
  3. Norris, Pippa and Ronald Ingelhart, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011, 4.
  4. Strong, John T., “Shattering the Image of God: A Response to Theodore Hiebert’s Interpretation of the Story of the Tower of Babel,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Winter 2008, Vol. 127, No. 4, pp 625-634, 632.
  5. Viney, Donald Wayne and George W. Shields, “Charles Hartshorne: Dipolar Theism,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,, accessed 10/2/21.
  6. Ibid.
  7. McFague, Sallie, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987, 22.

Photo by Jay R on Unsplash

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