“The supreme religious challenge is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image.”  

Jonathan Sacks

I’m finishing up Barbara Brown Taylor’s Holy Envy (highly recommend!). For those unfamiliar with Taylor, she grew up non-religious, converted to Christianity as a young adult, became an Episcopalian pastor, then left the ministry to teach world religions at a small college in Georgia. The book’s title addresses her “envy” of teachings and practices in other religions she’s studied, and what she’s learned about God and Christianity (which she still practices) by engaging with other world religions.

Towards the end of the book, Brown talks about what spirituality means to her and quotes a friend who defined it as “the active pursuit of the God you didn’t make up.” I (like Taylor) was struck by this concept–that spirituality is the pursuit of some truth outside of yourself, purified of your own ego projecting itself onto your version of deity. The pursuit of ultimate reality or Truth.

Easier said than done, though. In response to this concept, Taylor notes that she “could not argue with the part about making God up.  All you have to do is dust my Bible for fingerprints to find my favorite parts and the ignored ones–or follow my tracks on Google, or check my book purchases on Amazon, or poll my friends.  I stick very close to sources that support my view of reality.”  She continues, “Ask anyone what she means when she says ‘God’ and chances are that you will learn a lot more about the person that you will learn about God.”    

I think I agree with Taylor, but with a two caveats.

First, I think it is easier for some people than others to imagine themselves as God or God like themselves. In the LDS Church, it’s generally easier for a white male to imagine a God like himself than it is for a woman or a queer person or a person of color. So I actually don’t object to us imagining where and how we find God in ourselves. It’s critical work. But that’s where we start—not where we end.

The second follows from the first: we need to give others the opportunity to share their experience of God to more fully understand God’s nature. An example: I love that the LDS Church has (historically) expressed (tepid) support for the existence of a Mother God, Goddess, or feminine divine, in the form of a “Heavenly Mother.” (Yes, I’m capitalizing that and I will never stop.)

At the same time, I am uncomfortable with the way that a cisgender heteronormative Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother can be weaponized to deify straightness and reinforce gender norms. I was unsettled by this until I heard Rachel Hunt Steenblik respond to this concern in a podcast episode with Patrick Mason, Fiona Givens, and Bethany Brady Spalding. She said (paraphrasing from my memory) that she can only contribute to a version of Heavenly Mother that she–a cisgender, heterosexual, married mother of biological children–can experience and understand, and (based on her poetry) she seems to relate more to the feminine divine as a woman, mother, and daughter. She can’t speak for queer people, so she invited queer people to describe their experience with divine queerness; Blair Ostler gave us a great example in Queer Mormon Theology – an example that both showed us how God can be queer, and expanded our own understanding of love and God and the atonement overall. Similarly, black people need to describe their experience with black divinity, indigenous people theirs, and on and on for all the many identities we assume and differences between us. Only when every body in the body of Christ is free to express their experience with divinity and help us see the way that divinity is embodied in all of us can we get a fuller, truer picture of God.

So my caveat to Taylor’s writing (which I think she would agree with) is that it is important that we find the divinity embodied within us and imagine what that looks like. Our perspective, while limited, still matters. But it’s essential that we do not limit God to our own perspective, experience, and body. Surely God is not that small.

Unfortunately, we have a sticky problem in the LDS Church. We are very hung up on the idea that God is some kind of Celestial Man–a very literal white, bearded Father. Because that’s what Joseph Smith reported seeing in his vision, and it’s become a distinctive teaching for us. We pride ourselves in rejecting the amorphous, incomprehensible God of other Christian faiths in favor of our concrete one.

While I think that imagining God as Father can be helpful, that it’s entirely possible that God has presented Godself as something concrete to help someone understand and connect, and that Fatherhood is part of God’s character, over time I’ve come to believe that it is hubris that we think we can or should limit God to a male body simply because it’s hard for our brains to understand anything except the familiar.

And let me state this very clearly: I am deeply suspicious of a person or group of people who claim special knowledge about who God is, and tell us that God happens to look just like them. White male cisgender heterosexual fathers who claim that God is a white male cisgender heterosexual Father like them? Well, color me skeptical. Male religious authorities telling us we need to stop communicating about and with, connecting to, crediting with the creation, and—for goodness sakes— capitalizing references to a female deity because we are only supposed to worship a male one? Hard pass.

So how do we do the work needed to get closer to the truth about God?

Taylor describes two ways she’s attempted to pursue the God she didn’t make up. First, she studied other religions’ versions of God. I would add that we need to study other people’s vision of God even within our own religion–and we need them to speak up about it so that we can. While Taylor thinks this is an extremely important practice, she noticed that she “was still drawn to the teachings that [she] liked.” She was still somewhat blinded by her own biases even when piecing a God together through religious traditions outside her own. Rather than shutting down other peoples’ experiences of God because they don’t conform to our own, as Church leaders seem to be doing with women in the Church who are experiencing the feminine divine, we should be listening to them and seeing what pieces of the God puzzle they might add to our understanding.

So her next suggestion?  Practice seeing God in everyone around her, no matter how different they were from her and how much she may dislike them:  

“[W]hat better way [could there] be for me to actively pursue the God I did not make up–the one I cannot see–than to try for even twelve seconds to love these brothers and sisters whom I can see?  What better way to shatter my custom-made divine mosaic than to accept that these fundamentally irritating and sometimes frightening people are also made in the image of God? … The stranger … the one who does not look, think, or act like the rest of us–may offer us our best chance at seeing past our own reflections in the mirror to the God we did not make up.”  

I would have loved this concept had I read it a month ago, but it hit me particularly hard this week given the rumors about the attempted erasure of Heavenly Mother. I am in search of a larger God–a God who is big enough to fit the world.  Not a smaller one.  

Can our leaders rise to the challenge of seeing God’s image in people who don’t look like them?  In queer people?  In people of color?  In you? In me?   

Can we?   

Questions:

  • What’s something you learned from the LDS faith about God that you appreciate?
  • What’s something you learned from another faith about God that you appreciate?
  • Have you ever learned something about God from an experience with a person you didn’t relate to or like?  
  • How do you filter what new information to include in your picture of God–how do you decide what to keep and what to discard? 
  • We’re working on a guest post about Heavenly Mother, but if you’d heard about the rumors I’ve referred to here, any thoughts?