Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Models of God

This past summer I had a conversation with a very conservative Christian pastor at the U.S. Army Chaplain School, in which I, a Unitarian Universalist, had the audacity to use the word “God”. He looked at me with an angry eye and said “So who’s your God, Mammon?!?”

I have heard it said many times that we humans are the “meaning-making animals”, but I’m not sure I agree with that. Perhaps it would be closer to my view that we aspire to meaning, but what we really are is the “knowing animals”. We “know” so much. From our desire to control and understand our surroundings through science, to our attempts to classify people based upon their gender, skin color, or sexual orientation, we humans seek to control an incontrollable universe through “knowing”. We ask our political candidates to “know” the issues important to us, and to prove they do through shallow, ten word answers to complicated questions. The unknowable complexity of the universe in which we live frightens us, and so we seek to alleviate our fear by “knowing”.

Nowhere in human thought have we tried more to place the ultimately infinite and unknowable in boxes we can understand than we have in our quest to understand God… to understand the divine nature of all that surrounds us.

We need those models… the human mind does not deal well with infinity. We can talk about infinity, we might imply it mathematically, but I do not believe that we are really capable of grasping all that is. So, because we are “knowing animals” we have sought for millennia to “know” God. We have created models of that understanding.

The ancient Hebrews expressed God with a model of a vengeful God who had to be appeased, but who protected and provided opportunities to “his” people.

The ancient Greeks expressed God through a complex pantheon of “Gods” who not only controlled the world around them, but also brought in the best and worst aspects of human behavior… one of the first recognitions of humanity’s place within the divine. Through these many Gods, they expressed that the divine had both masculine and feminine characteristics.

Christians of the third and fourth centuries after Jesus created a triune understanding of God, the Trinity. God as Father, God as Son, and God as Holy Spirit removed some of the feminine understanding (only men were at the Council of Nicaea), but still presented an understanding of God that incorporated human characteristics in the divine.

I like Elaine Pagals’ understanding of the Trinity… God the Father, God the Mother, God the Child. Perhaps we would have had that if women had been equal to men in the third century… if we’d followed the example Jesus had set with Mary Magdalene.

Emerson had the Oversoul, Thomas Paine had the watchmaker God, Wiccans have the God and the Goddess, activists have Justice (which I think of as Athena-Nike), some of us worship money, some of us have transferred our model of God to the person of ourselves. Models of God abound through history and through the modern world.

For my wife, God is a trickster similar to the Native American God Coyote, or the Nordic God Loki. Most often, she expresses it through the God of Academia and Engineering, Murphy.

We Unitarian Universalists even put a model of God in our Seven Principles, whether we realize it or not… “the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part”. Not a bad model, from my perspective.

For the conservative Christian pastor who thought my God was “Mammon”… though he gave lip-service to the Trinity he had really transformed all his understanding of God to the person of Jesus… he was seeking a model of God in human form.

All of these models speak to each of us differently. I believe that each of these models probably expresses the unknowable about as well as any of the others, and which of the models of God speaks to us as individuals probably says much more about us than it does about God.

It is a hard concept that we, the “knowing animals”, have perhaps for millennia asked the wrong question about God. I learned this from a Pentecostal chaplain I met this past summer. He said, in a discussion about the Trinity, “It does not matter to me what God is, so long as I can continue to experience him in worship and prayer”.

Change the “him” to “it”, add meditation and life after prayer, and I found myself, a Universalist, in complete agreement with my Pentecostal friend. God is not an entity to be known, but a reality to be experienced. All of our models of God help us to wrap our limited minds around the unlimited, but they are not God, anymore than I can drive a picture of a car.

“Do you know God?” someone might ask… and I would have to say no. Ah, but there have been times in my life when I have touched God, experienced some small part of ultimacy and oneness that we tag with that three letter word… and I have come away from each such experience changed.

Knowing God is to put God in our limited boxes… experiencing God is to enter into the realm of the unlimited.

It does not matter to me what God is, so long as I can continue to experience it in worship, in prayer, in meditation, and in life.

Yours in Faith,


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