By Greg Forster: part one of a series.
Do we really think of God as a worker? We may say he is one, citing John 5:17 or other passages. But does our concept of God match our theology? How we imagine God is one of the most profound formative influences on our faith and life. That’s why scripture gives us so many images to help us imagine who God is and what he’s like.
Do we imagine God as a worker? Or do we imagine him as a passive force? A Zeus sitting atop Olympus, commanding us to work so he can recline and drink ambrosia? A huge Neo-Platonic light bulb at the center of the universe, obvious to the rays of illumination he broadcasts? C.S. Lewis once received a letter from a young girl who said she imagined God as a vast tapioca pudding; to make matters worse, she hated tapioca.
These ways of imagining God and others like them produce a certain kind of life. This was brought home to me more fully this spring as I read through selections of Augustine’s City of God with students at TEDS and Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man with my breakfast group. The stern prophetic proclamations of Augustine and the ironic historical muse of Chesterton both connect the pagan Roman imagination about God to the failure and eventual collapse of pagan Roman society.
If we picture Zeus reclining atop Olympus, it’s not long before we picture him chasing skirts, and then we do the same. If we picture God as a light bulb, it’s not long before “he” becomes an “it” and the light we really chase after is the will-o-the-wisp within.
Though they have pagan origins, these ways of imagining God continue to plague the church. This is in part because of the recurrent tendency of the church’s clerical and organizational structure to overemphasize contemplation (i.e. what we do on Sunday) over action (i.e. what we do on Monday). Since we are made in God’s image – and even more because Jesus is the image of the living God, the exact likeness of his being – whatever we imagine as the Christlike life will affect how we imagine God himself. If contemplation is superior to action for humans, we imagine God as merely contemplative.
Of course God rests to contemplate and enjoy, and so should we. In Genesis 1, each active work of “let there be” is followed by an appreciative “it is good.” The complete work of creation is likewise followed by the “it is very good” of restful contemplation.
While both are needed, however, it seems to me that it is the work side that is missing from our imagination of God. Does anyone today imagine God as a workaholic?
Some Christians are averse to the life of the imagination. Some of this is a concern about idolatry, and some (under the influence of Plato, if only at many cultural removes) is the tendency to think of imagination as something opposed to truth.
But it is idolatry to make images of God. That is why idols are described as “the work of your hands” (a description that the faith and work movement ought to remember more often than it does!). It is not idolatry to receive and be formed by the images that God gives us in scripture. When scripture presents an image to us, God is inviting us – even commanding us – to imagine it.
Indeed, it would be idolatry to refuse the gift of scriptural imagination. It would be to make an idol of our human powers of reason and virtue.
As for truth, as Vincent Bacote (no stranger to our movement!) explained at Karam Forum in March, imagination is not the enemy of truth but its ally. It is the life of the imagination that gives truth the power to shape behavior. Gene Veith (also no stranger to our movement!) and Matthew Ristuccia wrote on both these issues and many more in their gem of a book Imagination Redeemed.
What would it entail, imagining God as a worker? How would it transform our faith and our work if we did? This blog series will review images that are given to us in scripture to help us imagine God as a worker, and explore how our lives might change if we imagined God in that light.