I am editing and rewriting the fifth novel of my science fiction series. The society (the Snow People of Shushimee) the travelers encounter in this book had a written language at one time and, because it was associated with rituals they no longer understood, they had come to see it as evil. They knew the symbols, but no longer understood what they meant.
In this excerpt, the chaplain is getting ready to speak to his congregation. (Andez is his Chaplain’s assistant. Cooper is the Transport Chief who holds a particular grudge against God.)
As Andez conducted the early parts of vespers, Craig let his thoughts wander “We’re not much different than the Snow People. We don’t understand so many of the old society’s symbols anymore. We don’t understand the Shepherd, or the planting and sowing, or the patriarchal society. To the first believers it was comforting to think of God as father. And we think it’s as bad as it is good.” He looked around room and caught a glimpse of Cooper leaning against the chapel’s door jamb. “At least half these people don’t even know their fathers.” Andez took his seat, ready for Craig to speak. “God help me tell them about you in terms they understand.”
As I revisited this paragraph I returned to a subject I have been wrestling with for a while. It has to do with the changing view of God and how we deal with it. Here are a few reflections. And this is in no way a complete discussion of the subject. Hope they start your own thought journey.
When humanity lived in violent times, God was understood in terms that matched the violent times. King, ruler, God was judged by how much power his followers had. How strong they were. The things that symbolized strength to them were used as symbols for God. (The right hand, the horns of animals.)
When the world’s most valued institution was/is the family, it was/is natural to understand God as a loving father figure.
When success, getting ahead, making something of one’s self and acceptance by society is most valued, God is viewed as helping us achieve these goals.
And when individuality is uppermost in value, God is understood as a partner in a relationship.
When law and civil order is most valued, the symbols of God reflect those values.
When head knowledge, and education are most valued, theology becomes most important.
We cannot forget (yet we often do forget) any way we speak of God is symbolic. We cannot understand the magnitude and breadth and depth and multi-dimensions of God as a Spirit otherwise. The total otherness of God escapes us.
Because of their function, symbols have this habit of slipping in to God’s place. We worship the symbol instead of God:
Ritual and words,
The blood of Christ,
The shroud Christ was covered with,
The trappings of theology, as well as theology and dogmatics themselves,
Traditional symbols such as father, mother, shepherd, sower, reaper, king, ruler, provider, sustainer, power source,
The symbols and style of worship,
Victims, (as the symbol of Jesus’ teaching of the strong empowering the weak instead of oppressing)
are but a few symbols we deeply care about.
When Jesus was sent to earth, God provided the ultimate symbol of His love. He sent his son. Something all humans understand and relate to. So, the family symbol has been most enduring.
However, today many people no longer understand the Old Testament view of God. When we try to apply our values as a victim oriented society to their understanding we question the authority and actions of the Old Testament God. Yet, there are societies that have not been part of the world’s journey and understanding as people and society have put into practice the lessons Jesus brought with him from God. Some still see God through the eyes and symbols of conquest and dominance of the strong over the weak as it was before Jesus was sent into the world.
And even, as people and societies who try to put Jesus’ teachings into practice, we stumble and fail in the application of them. Sometimes our symbols are faulty. Sometimes we try to make God fit the symbols we love. And that may be okay in certain instances. Illustrations are often valuable to help us understand things about God we could not otherwise. And Illustrations often grow into symbols.
Having said all that, we must also understand if we change the symbols for God we do not change the essential nature of God. For instance, God as a mother symbol does not change God, it merely helps us understand the nurturing action of God.
If we can grasp that each symbol illustrates a specific part of God instead of the whole, we can comfortably use the symbols. In fact, I think God does things the way he does because he tries to use the things we understand. He speaks to us differently because we are all different people.
I understand God as a loving father because I happen to be have been blessed with a loving, mischievous, thinking, teacher and pastor of a father. Imperfect though he was as are all humans, he was a good model for God as father. But I don’t have to look very far to see people who cringe at the idea of God as father, or even male. And many cringe at the idea of Mother God.
Music speaks to me. It’s part of my very soul. God can get into my heart and grab my attention quicker by using beauty than any other way. Music as a symbol for God makes sense to me. My mother is tone deaf…a monotone even. God as beauty and music makes very little sense to her.
What are your symbols? What are the things in contemporary life that can become symbols to people who no longer understand ancient symbols? We need to go back and understand the ancient symbols before we can translate them for our new generations.
Do not be afraid when someone else’s symbols are different from yours. God is God. Even when called by another name or symbolized by a not-male or not-female Spirit instead of male father or female mother or a relationship partner instead of authority. We can examine each symbol and see what part of God it is speaking of. We can check it out with the Bible and see if that which the symbol is trying to bring to light is really part of God’s nature. Then we can accept or reject it.
But we do not have to live in fear of the changing world and its symbols.
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