Back to my exploration of the characteristics of Spirit, and in this post I’ll be looking back at the image of Spirit I grew up with. The God, if you like, that people gave me, or tried to.
Most of us were introduced to ideas about God via parents, school and/or places of worship, through childhood into adolescence and early adulthood. At some stage, many of us break away and start to explore other ideas about Spirit for ourselves. But this is about the God you had taught to you by other people.
(Because I was raised in a Christian culture, I’ll use the word ‘God’ in this post. For the same reason, a lot of this will come across as critical of Christianity. Please understand, the negative stuff I experienced came from a number of places: suspect doctrines, poor teaching, other people’s vested interests and emotional biases, not to mention my own youth and misunderstanding. I know many wise and compassionate Christians who’ve encountered much the same sort of issues on their own spiritual journeys. Also, my tone isn’t intended to be facetious…just to bring a little lightness to a sometimes rather unhappy account.)
It’s easier to do this in stages, so if you’re having a go at this exploration, try jotting your ideas down under headings, as I have below. Think at each stage not just about what images you were picking up, but what effects they might have had on you.
In my non-church-going home, I first encountered God as:
Neat freak. Well, my mother was always telling me cleanliness was next to Godliness – although in our house, that meant God came a very poor second. He was invoked whenever I made a mess – from which I got the impression he didn’t like me much.
At my Church of England school, as at all UK schools in the 1970s, we had morning assembly, and occasional services at the local church. Here they told us God was:
Maker of the world. Without, it seemed, ever getting into trouble for making a mess! Oddly, no connection was ever made to my own, or other people’s, urge to make stuff.
‘Up there’. Hymns and popular culture told us he lived in Heaven, in the sky. We didn’t question it, or ask how Space, as in rockets and aliens, fit into the same scheme. But it also led to an unspoken view of God as distant, remote, impossibly beyond human life. ‘In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,’ as the hymn put it.
Very Big Person – Laugh if you will, but I imagined God as an actual giant for a few years.
Boss of Everything. We could visit God on earth, in his big Victorian Gothic house, but you had to be extra good and quiet, and everyone spoke to him formally. A bit like my rather stern grandfather. You obeyed his rules, even if you didn’t understand them. This wasn’t a God you felt safe getting personal or, heaven help us, playful with.
Jesus’ Dad. To a child who put all myths on an equal footing, Jesus was as ‘real’ and interesting as Orpheus or Robin Hood. As I understood it, he did a lot of good (sometimes magical) things, but was killed horribly because he annoyed some powerful people. (Yes, I was already savvy enough to have worked that out.) The idea that he was God didn’t really register, but him being God’s (only-begotten) Son gave us the subtle message that he was special and powerful in a way we could never be.
Male. Theology says God has no body, parts or passions, but art and language always gave him a luxuriant beard and addressed him as ‘He’. As a girl, I wouldn’t find this odd until much later, but it emphasised the ‘not like you’ aspect.
For several years, the Church Army took us off our exasperated parents’ hands during the summer holidays for games, crafts, dire guitar songs (I recall the theme from Van der Valk with lyrics about Jesus shoehorned in) and evangelism, with God as:
Hater of sinners. Well, sin, really, but at that age you don’t get the distinction. Sin was, they said, like when you open the fridge to have a taste of the trifle your Mum made for tea, and next thing you know, you’re sitting by the empty bowl in a custard-induced stupor when she walks in an hour later. Their point, in this and similar parables, was that a teensy spoonful of sin, to God, is as bad as scoffing the whole trifle. Naturally, most of us thought: why bother even trying to be good, if you’re going to get it anyway?
Demanding vengeance. Jesus’ feeding, healing and teaching people now seemed to be sidelined to the awful death he’d suffered – for us, so that we didn’t have to suffer in Hell later. The whole thing sounded over the top. God demanded his Son’s death, just to get us off the hook for premature trifle-tasting and other juvenile crimes? Were we really that bad? Combined with some of the Old Testament stories – all that smiting! – it made God look, well, a bit bloodthirsty. Which might actually have made him look cool to some of us eight-year-olds, but probably not in the way intended.
When the Commander asked us to raise our hands if we’d decided to ‘commit’, mine stayed down. With my theological doubts, Jesus clearly didn’t want me for a sunbeam.
By now I was at grammar school. The apostle Paul mentions ‘putting away childish things’, and by this time the huge, sky-enthroned God of my younger days did seem a bit ridiculous – but the evangelical Christian Union brought him back in other forms:
Censor. I’d started reading books about Eastern religions, astrology and other esoterica, but now I was told that if I didn’t burn the books (or at least stop reading them), God would be burning me. It was also censorship of ideas. Ponder whether God might be better described as a Force than a Person, and you were told to beware the Satanic wiles of the New Age. Dare to wonder if you could address him as She, and you got cries of ‘Pagan!’ (Well, they were right on that count.)
Perfectionist. Surely, if you were a decent person who tried to be kind and honest to your fellow humans, God would accept you, right? Nope. Nobody was good enough for God. But he loved you anyway, and if you loved him, you’d let him turn you (by any painful means necessary) into the sort of person he could accept. As this was the message I was already getting at home, it didn’t help my plummeting self-esteem.
Unfair. You could be accepted if you let Jesus vouch for you, even if you were a serial killer; but if not, you were out, no matter what good you’d done in the world. Gandhi was out. The Dalai Lama wouldn’t be going. Worse, an assembly on the life of John Lennon ended with the pointed reminder that ‘talent and fame are for nothing if you don’t accept Jesus.’ Imagine that. It was Heaven, the nightclub, where you could only get in with the right Friend. Picture a stony-faced bruiser angel, like the ones in the Jack Chick comics, in a too-tight tuxedo intoning ‘Your name’s not down – you’re not coming in’.
Substitute partner. Desperate for a boyfriend, I was told Jesus was the only man I’d ever need. What I really needed was someone to sit me down and explain why ‘You are nothing without a man’ – or ‘nothing without God’ – was a lousy message to live by. And why I should spend time, lots of it, working on my own self-worth. In hindsight, years later, I realised that ‘Love me and change to please me, or you’ll suffer and it’ll be your own fault’ was the keynote of all my most damaging human relationships. Shudder.
Ecstatic. There was another side. Dragged to a Mission at the local football ground, I saw the radiant faces of my schoolmates as they swayed, eyes closed, lost in praise songs. Part of me wished I could experience that surrender – but you can’t surrender unless you feel complete trust. And for reasons I’ve described, I couldn’t do that.
In my twenties I was, for six years, a nominally Protestant, broomcloseted Wiccan married to a non-practising Roman Catholic, with a very practising, old school, pre-Vatican II Irish mother, It was… complicated. My very first impression was of God as:
Sex-hating, body-hating, and deeply misogynistic. I got all these as a package, before I even darkened the door of a Catholic Church – from a very human source, although God was invoked to make it clear that my (actually quite staid for the early 90s) behaviour and dress made me…well, I recall the actual word ‘Jezebel’, among others. It hurt (even if I had fit the stereotype, that sort of shaming is never acceptable), and it sapped my confidence in myself and my body, which was only just beginning to recover from adolescence. And, without getting too personal, when boys are raised with these ideas, it doesn’t do great things to how they later treat women, either.
Transcendent. In a good way. Ironically, the church I got cajoled into attending Mass at was a modern, very moderate one, to the disgust of the old ladies at the back. They didn’t preach any kind of hate, and they did organise pilgrimages, a few of which I went on, which – through the atmosphere, the setting, the ritual – touched something very powerful. I vividly recall a torchlight procession that had an absolutely numinous, otherworldly atmosphere. Snag was, the emotional focus of most of this wasn’t God at all, but his officially inferior Mother, the Blessed Virgin. (For whom, dogma be damned, I still have a soft spot, but that’s another story…)
I parted company with Christianity at that point – and have never since identified as a Christian (though, as I said, I’ve been on good terms with a fair few who do) – not because I no longer believed in God, but because I did. But in a God – and that word is baggage-laden enough that I’ll drop it now – who was bigger and wilder and less predictable than any of those old attempts to tie her down.
The writer G. K. Chesterton once noted that the danger, when people stop believing in (his) God, is not that they believe in nothing, but that they believe in anything. Damn straight. There’s a reason why that’s more threatening to orthodoxy: a real risk that out there among the ‘anything’, we might find something that fires up our hearts and imaginations more brightly than simple absence of belief ever could. Give yourself the freedom to speculate about Spirit, and you might encounter something truly radical and transforming. But that’s for the next part…