Column: The image of God differs among traditions

Someone the other day asked me if God was a he or a she. I tried to answer that God is not bound by gender. God, as we call him, is a convenient way to allow us to communicate who we are talking about.

The early Jewish communities would not call God by the term “God.” They thought that the term GOD was too sacred to be said. So they used words that often described God, “Baruch-Shem,” which means “Blessed be the name,” or just “Ha-Shem,” which means “The Name.” Or what Jewish people often use today, “Adonai” means “Lord.” Recall that Moses, at the burning bush, asks God for a name.

Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ What shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: I AM has sent me to you” (Gen. 3:13-14).

Humans have conceptualized God in Western cultures as an old man with a long beard. However, God himself never appears to humans. It is evident from what he says to Moses that we are dealing with an extraordinary being beyond our figurative ability.” I am who I am” is a powerful statement with no time connected. It is beyond our human parameters to truly understand or comprehend. Yet we as humans need a representation; thus, the flowing beard and aged person we represent as God is comforting.

I think it is interesting that so many cultures and religions defer the name of God to his attributes. Many cultures use the greeting, even in their secular society, with a greeting that refers to God. The Punjabis in India, when greeting each other, say “Sat Sri Akaal” which translates, “The almighty is the ultimate truth.”

Human beings seem to sense that there is a being that oversees creation–one God with many paths.

God never shows himself in the Old Testament; we hear his voice, but he never appears in a symbolic form. We hear his voice, but he has no image. Many religions similarly name God. The Native Americans call God the Great Spirit or “Gitchi Manitou.” Some religions call him Jehovah, a name rendered from a Hebrew translation. In Islam, he is known as “Allah.” Again, God is known in Islam by 99 epithets or descriptions of his nature. No one word seems to encompass who or what God is.

There is a change between the Old and New Testaments. There is a humanizing appearance of a child, and the father sends his son. Jesus is a human and personal statement of his love for us. He sends his son, Jesus, who is like us in all things but sin. To me, this is one of the complex challenges of belief. The ultimate question of faith. Do you believe that God enters the world as Jesus, the son of God? St. John’s gospel encompasses this dramatic change, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).

God becomes a man. Ponder this statement for a few minutes. God becomes like human beings. All reality is changed. We are offered a personal relationship with God through his son Jesus. But God knows that as human beings, we must be able to know and understand, in our limited lives, love itself.

The complexities of God the Father are too large in many ways for us to comprehend, so he sends his son, Jesus, to teach us his ways. Jesus says, “If you know me, you will know my father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:7).

Christianity, unlike other major religions, is a personal relationship with God. Jesus is part of the Trinity, the personal side of God. The Trinity itself is imponderable for us to understand, but in simple language, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are different aspects of the one God.

God is the essential truth of the universe and existence. It was Abraham who made a covenant with God.

To worship him and him alone. God asked for no images of himself in worship. He was to be an abstract God. This is the root of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. The Jewish or Islamic religion produce no images of God, to this day.

Without God, our journey in this world would indeed be limited by our death. Our lives would be reduced to just pleasure and pain. Ultimately, anxiety and depression would be our journey’s final understanding of life. There is only one God, but many paths are evident in the religions and cultures of the world. As human beings, we need to seek the truth and reasons for our existence. God loves us and, believe it or not, has created us for himself.

Kathleen Carlton Johnson, Ph.D., hospice chaplain, may be reached at faithtoday2023@gmail.com.


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