How do we imagine God?


I have been in this class that is studying the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. It has been a difficult for me as I read his work. I have never taken a philosophy course before. I do not understand the language used in his writings.

In a super heated cup of water way, Levinas deals with relationships and the idea of proximity, the other, and insomnia. All are words we have heard and used frequently in our lives. For Levinas proximity has a deep and penetrating meaning. Influenced by his experience with the tragic events of the Holocaust, Levinas seeks to go beyond the Greek world of logic, reason, and thought and enter the Hebrew experience of dependency, choseness, and divine intimacy.

For Levinas the system of language, culture, and relationships that allowed and perpetrated the Holocaust defied humanity and its existence demanded explanation. Why did these events happen and where in divine purpose do these events serve to connect Creator and creation?

I sat in class on Wednesday and the thought came to me, “How do I imagine God? How do we imagine God?”

In a conversation between a group of Christians and Muslims here at the seminary last semester, a Muslim student from UT spoke of Allah (God) saying, “What ever you think, imagine, or speak of that God is. You must realize that God is not.” This is Tawhid. In the Islamic perspective there is nothing that is more than God. God did not beget a son. God is not many distinct gods or persons. God cannot be fathomed, imagined, or even spoken off. God cannot be understood, labeled, or seen. God is God and there is nothing like God.

Tawhid is what comes to mind when I read Levinas and the idea of proximity. If we view Tawhid as the claim that God is absolute and the perfect Creator, then we have no difference in a Christians, Muslims, and Jews understanding of God.

Tawhid demands an orientation to the divine with the understanding that nothing is more than God and that God cannot be boiled down to an easily digestible formula. Essentially, God cannot be owned, commodified, or deciphered.

The most beautiful thing about Tawhid to me is the impossible portrait of God it provides.

What is the Christian image of God? Is God levied to the old gray bearded man sitting on the throne looking similar to the king of the sea, Neptune or the sky god Zeus? Perhaps God is Alanis Morissette from the film, Dogma. When we as Christians imagine God do we account for the diversity of creation made by the spoken word of a divine Creator?

Where does our imagination of God limit our ability to be and receive prophetic instruction to live a dangerously active life of transformation and dynamic love?

How do you imagine God? Where does this image limit you? What function does this image play in your call?

6 thoughts on “How do we imagine God?

  1. Philip probably doesn’t remember this, but in a sermon one time he described the holy spirit as a red fog you could see moving through the congregation. He was doing a sermon on this topic, with the difficulty of imagining the Holy Ghost with the Father and Son, which are easier to picture. (see Philip I was listening). I will always have that in my mind.

    I cannot picture God. I think that’s why I love religious art so much. It takes us as far as our minds can go, but never far enough.

  2. I love Levinas. I began to see the otherness in everything after reading him. Certainly in God.

    I’ve always had a difficult time understanding via negativa, but I’ve always been challenged by it.

    Thanks so much for the post, Ryan.

  3. @ Dannah, I love art as well. As an artist God aslways manages to blow my mind when I seek to explain and share the encounter I have with the divine.

    @ Carol, I am begining to comprehend that the challenge is far better than the understanding.

    Levinas kicks the other butt!

  4. I can now pretend I get Levinas!

    Levinas “the other” white meat.

    Levinas “the other” means to minister.

    Levinas see your “self” in “others”.

  5. Dani says:

    This is so fun because I remember reading Levinas, and of course now I only think about him when I read your blog. I do remember loving him though. I had a semester where it felt like all I read was Levinas and Derrida. I’m interested in his concept of the “other” though. And I’m not totally in agreement with the Tawhid, at least, in as far as I understand it. I do think the mystery of the Christian faith is that we can know God, even though God is totally OTHER.

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