Multifaith Mashup: Describing God

by Vicki Garlock on November 15, 2013

Shining Light

Shining Light
Wikimedia Commons: Zouavman Le Zouave

What does God look like? How can we describe God? How does God appear to us? Poets, mystics, religious leaders, and lay people from all the faith traditions have wrestled with these questions for ages. For many, the divine mystery is simply indescribable. “I AM WHO I AM,” God famously stated to Moses in Exodus 3. Even the Tao Te Ching, in its very first lines, suggests that our efforts will be futile. “The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.” Yet, we live within the realm of our sensory experiences, and there is a human yearning to articulate who and what God is in a tangible way.

When I posed this question to my own children and their friends, I got a variety of responses. My 7-year-old son said, “I think God wears fancy clothes, and walks around, maybe with a little beard. I can’t really imagine what his hair looks like – maybe spiky.” One 6th-grader said, “I think God looks like nothing.” My 8th-grade daughter and her friends agreed that God, in human form, was probably a man with very dark skin and dread locks. They suggested that this was the best way to counter the standard image of an old, white man with a long beard. I countered that replacing one stereotype with another might not be particularly helpful, but they were not convinced. One dad replied, “I like to imagine that God is the space between you and me.”

As varied as the responses were, they don’t seem particularly unusual. Over 30 years ago, James Fowler studied the stages of faith in children. He asked kids the same question. In his book, a 4½-year-old is quoted as saying, “He doesn’t look like anything. He’s all around you.” A 10-year-old replied that God looked like an old man with a white beard, white hair, and forgiving blue eyes. She added that God wore a long robe and was seated on a throne with clouds surrounding his feet. (Perhaps my teenaged daughter and her friends have a point.)

It’s interesting to wonder how these images arise from our culture, especially since the Bible rarely addresses what God looks like. In fact, more often than not, God is depicted as an aspect of nature. We are currently studying the Moses story in our Sunday school classes. It’s amazing how many times God appears to Moses and/or the Israelites in this saga. God first appeared to Moses as a burning bush.

An angel of the Lord appeared to [Moses] in a blazing fire out of a bush. [Moses] gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed….And [the Lord] said, “Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand I holy ground.” …And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. (Tanakh, Exodus 3:2b, 5, 6b)

According to the next few verses, God proceeded to inform Moses about the plan to free the Israelites slaves from the Pharaoh in Egypt, which finally happened after the 10 plagues. Once released, however, the Israelites were stuck wandering around in the desert. Once again, God appeared to them, this time as a pillar of cloud to guide them by day and a pillar of fire to guide them by night. God appeared yet again when he spoke the 10 commandments.

On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain….Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. (Tanakh, Exodus 19:16a, 18)

One of the most determined attempts to describe God outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition comes from the Bhagavad Gita. The Bhagavad Gita is part of an epic tale from ancient India called the Mahabharata. The oldest fragments of text are from 400BCE, but the story may have been handed down for hundreds of years before that. The Bhagavad Gita portion consists of a rather long conversation between Prince Arjuna and Lord Krishna, a Hindu deity. In Chapter 11, Krishna allows Arjuna to see him fully, as God, the Supreme Being.

He appeared with an infinite number of faces, ornamented by heavenly jewels, displaying unending miracles and the countless weapons of his power. Clothed in his celestial garments and covered with garlands, sweet-smelling with heavenly fragrances, he showed himself as the infinite Lord, the source of all wonders, whose face is everywhere. If a thousand suns were to rise in the heavens at the same time, the blaze of their light would resemble the splendor of that supreme spirit….I see infinite mouths and arms, stomachs and eyes, and you are embodied in every form. I see you everywhere, without beginning, middle, or end. You are the Lord of all creation, and the cosmos is your body….I see you, who are so difficult to behold, shining like a fiery sun blazing in every direction….Changeless, you are what is and what is not, and beyond the duality of existence and nonexistence. You are the first among the gods, the timeless spirit, the resting place of all beings. You are the knower and the thing which is known. You are the final home; with your infinite form you pervade the cosmos….You are behind me and in front of me; I bow to you on every side. Your power is immeasurable. You pervade everything; you are everything. (Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 11, Verses 10-12, 16-17, 37c-38, 40)

Take a moment and ask yourself how you view God/the One/the Divine/the Great Mystery. Then take a moment to ask your kids. Your kids are likely to have a ready answer. You may or may not. Either way, you’re clearly in good company.

Sources:
Bhagavad Gita. Trans. Eknath Easwaran. CA: Nilgiri Press, 2007. Print.
Fowler, James W. Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981. Print.
Tanakh: A New Translation of The Holy Scriptures. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 1985. Print.
Tao Te Ching. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. NY: Harper Perennial, 1988. Print.

[In our Multifaith Mashup columns, we explore a topic from a variety of faith traditions and sacred texts. To see other columns, search our blog using the Multifaith Mashup tag. These columns are representative of the middle school Sunday School curriculum, and to a certain extent, the upper elementary Sunday School curriculum we developed at Jubilee! Community Church in Asheville, NC.]

 

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