Portraits of the Divine

To the fundamentalist, God appears as Text and Certitude, endowing the Moral Majority with the knowledge that God is an ethic that may be held without an asterisk of doubt. To the Charismatics, God is Joy and spiritual gifts… And to the social gospelers, God is Justice… To Catholic mystics, God appears as the Consoler–sometimes gentle and at others quite disruptive–amid their discernment of spirits. To those Christians bruised by their attempts to meet the demands of postmodernity, God is a refuge found in conservative liturgies and strict constructionism of the Decalogue.

To all God’s sectarian clients, God appears sovereign, but to a more casual observer God appears terribly fragmented, as if God hadn’t yet decided which mask God wants, or is God telling us that all of them are wanted, that that’s the point: that God loves each mask democratically? – William Lloyd Newell

Before reading this post it might be helpful to read the full quote here.

For Newell, the multiplicity of divine portraits, which Christianity boasts, is a problem. We should, however, note that such multiplicity was never a problem for the authors and editors of the Bible. In some passages the Bible portrays the Divine as an omnipotent, immutable creative genius (Genesis 1), while in other passages the Divine is portrayed in anthropomorphic terms (Genesis 2). While some passages, such as Exodus 15, portray the Divine as a warrior, others portray the Divine as a loving father (e.g. Psalm 103). If the canonical scriptures of Christianity presents such diverse portraits of the Divine, it is little wonder that Christianity boasts many diverse portraits of the same God.

For me, the multiplicity of portraits within Christianity and the Christian scriptures highlights the fact that the Divine is not an object to be studied behind the glass wall of a laboratory, but rather, the Divine is something (or perhaps someone) that is experienced in our every day lives. Thus, I can appreciate the experiential perspective of charismatic Christianity and Christian mysticism. Christian mysticism, in particular, embraces the mystery which shrouds the divine, and seeks to experience God as mystery. In order to do this, however, we must learn to embrace God as mystery.


Once we learn to embrace God as mystery, the diverse portraits of the divine in Judaism and Christianity find their place within our diverse experience.

Once we appreciate that the canonical scriptures represents people’s experience of the Divine, which their faith communities have found helpful and useful, we allow space for multiple perspectives on the Divine.

Once we realise that each different portrait of the Divine corresponds to a different person’s experience, within a certain time and place, we understand that the Divine meets us where we are, even assimilating to many of our cultural and philosophical assumptions, in order to stand with us wherever we might be.

For the Priest, who views the world as a highly structured and controlled environment, the Divine becomes a type of “unmoved mover” who speaks blessing and order into our world (Genesis 1).

For others, the Divine looks more like a gardener, or perhaps even a potter, who is not afraid to get their hands dirty in order to bring beauty and life to our world (Genesis 2).

For those who are oppressed by a ruthless overlord, the Divine looks more like a warrior who marches into battle to liberate his beloved people (Exodus 15).

To the fatherless, the Divine becomes the father they never knew (Psalm 103).

But how do we have an authentic experience of the Divine that does not merely conform to the one we long for the most? I don’t really have an answer to this question, but I suspect a good place to start is the portrait of the Divine examined in my previous post. An authentic experience of the Divine will be characterised by three things:

  1. It is found within, and may even be indistinguishable from, our human experience.
  2. It drives our towards greater expressions of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
  3. It encourages unity and peace between all people.




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