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How Do You Imagine God? Lauren Winner Explores Favorite and Obscure Images

Harper Collins

J. David Nolan - published on 04/15/15

And her own revealing reactions

On my wall hangs an icon: St. Joseph stands in the center, holding the Christ child, while behind and above him God the Father is spreading a magnificent spangled cloak, ready, it seems, to swaddle the both of them. 

“The Great Comforter,” I’ve dubbed the image; God the holder of blankets, ready to wrap you up and keep you warm. Stranger titles have been given to God: In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus likens himself to a mother hen. In the Psalms, David calls God a rock. 

Throughout the history of Christianity, writers have analogized God to natural objects and various conjurings of the human mind. Alongside this history of analogy has developed a theory of analogy. If God can be compared to both a rock and a chicken, there has to be a method to distinguish the ways he is like one and the ways he is like the other, and perhaps most importantly, the ways he is like neither.

As medieval theologians often asked: What can be said of God? Language describes, paints pictures in words. To illustrate the perils of this descriptive endeavor, an example from the visual arts helps. In the eighth century, espousing the ruling regime’s theory about iconography could save your head. Influenced by a rising tide of iconoclasts, Leo III, emperor of Byzantium, issued an edict against the veneration of icons and began to persecute those who violated his dictum. His worry was that veneration would lead to idolatry. 

In response, the monk John of Damascus (now saint and Father of the Church), wrote his Treatises on the Divine Images. He makes the commonsense claim that “the image is certainly not like the archetype, that is, what is depicted, in every respect.” 

In other words, icons don’t lead to idolatry if the worshiper properly understands the object of contemplation. A picture of Jesus is not Jesus, and as long as the viewer knows this, the image needn’t cause sin and, indeed, can help the worshiper turn his heart and mind to God. John of Damascus’s views eventually won out, but not before a number of statues and images were smashed in misguided religious fervor. 

Whether our images of the divine are visual or verbal, the key, as Lauren Winner puts it in her searching new book, Wearing God, is, with every image, to “discern how it is both like and unlike the Lord.” 

Winner, a professor of Christian spirituality at Duke, points out that some images of God have wide cultural purchase—our God is like a Lamb, a Warrior, a Bridegroom. We see visual representations and read expositions of these analogies throughout Christian art and literature. All true. But Winner’s interests include more obscure images of God that pop up in the Bible—clothing, smell, bread and vine, laboring woman, laughter, and flame. What do these images tell us about God?

Alongside her reflections and histories of these images, Winner shares a fair amount of herself. Wearing God is as much meditation on images of the divine as it is an excavation of her reactions to these images. With this dual focus, she stands in good company. The question that drives St. Augustine’s introspection in Confessions, for example, is the search for God, not for self. Yet in pursuing God, Augustine necessarily mines his own memory and rationality. Digging like this can be painful.

In Winner’s most powerful chapter, where she considers the ways in which God is like a woman in labor (an image taken from Isaiah), she finds herself shaken and unsettled by the comparison. “I realize,” she admits, “that my own discomfort must include not just theoretical worry about a god’s vulnerability but fear of my own vulnerability. Isaiah’s picture of God suggests those moments when I stop fighting my own vulnerability are exactly the moments when I participate in God’s very nature, in God’s very life. (Do I really want a God with a body? Would I prefer a God who lives as I try to live—mostly in my head?)”

Through Isaiah’s image of  God in travail—“I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant”—Winner realizes more deeply the truth of the Incarnate God, the God who took on our pain. And she willingly shares that realization with her reader.

In Wearing God, Winner doesn’t engage with debates about how we can speak of God, and her precision could have been improved if she better balanced pursuing an image’s meaning for her with the ways in which images can in a theological sense properly be ascribed to God. But, while her theological reflections occasionally seem to take one step too far, her analyses of lesser known metaphors clarify and inspire. Winner, no iconoclast, has painted us some pictures worthy of veneration.

J. David Nolan is assistant editor at First Things magazine. This is his first contribution to Aleteia. 

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