May you read this article in the gracious spirit in which it was intended, and may it be a blessing to you.
I recently saw this gallery on io9.com collecting charmingly inaccurate medieval paintings of animals. The reason the animals in these paintings are so deformed is that the artists had never seen the animals in person. The artists were working secondhand – attempting the capture the likeness of exotic creatures based on the descriptions of the explorers who had been eyewitnesses.
What happens when a painter who’s never seen an elephant paints an elephant? For one example, you get a beast with tusks that come from its lower jaw like a boar, instead of from either size of its nose.
Albrecht Durer’s awesome rhinoceros is another example. Check out the extraneous shoulder-horn:
These aberrations can even happen in three dimensions. What do you get when you give a lion’s pelt to a taxidermist who’s never seen a living specimen? Something like the Lion of Gripsholm Castle:
The io9.com article got me thinking about the necessity of theological humility. Just as these artists from centuries past conjured in their minds inaccurate visions of exotic animals based on secondhand information, my mental pictures of God may be similarly skewed.
We human-folk cannot think about God apart from our biases, social filters, and preconceived notions. Although the biblical authors did their best to convey the complicated majesty, glory, terror, and tenderness of God, our act of interpreting the text in order to craft an image of God in our minds always results in an imperfect image. Indeed, Scripture itself tells us that fully grasping God is impossible. The best we can do is contemplate only a few aspects of Him at a time.
Some citizens of the world have been blessed with visions and experiences of God beyond the written word. But those who have must still keep in mind that even these manifestations are only partial, and our ability to process them is puny. Whether I have come to know God thought deep study of scripture, through theophany and vision, or both, I need humility to understand that my grasp of the Creator and his attributes remains partial and tenuous. Most theology is second-hand theology.
A corollary to this observation is that I should not be too quick to dismiss other folks whose perceptions of God differ somewhat from mine. I am not saying I should give up on foundational scriptural teachings like the Trinity or the fact that God is love. But I shouldn’t be quick to judge when another person’s mental portrait of God differs somewhat from mine. Ater all, the scribes of Christ’s day did not recognize the God that Jesus described. People who emphasize different aspect of God may simply be paying greater attention to different aspects of the Creator’s multifaceted nature, and both parties could both benefit by comparing notes. I suspect our collective experience of God resembles the parable of the three blind men describing an elephant by touch. One said the elephant is like a rope, another said it is like a tree, another said it is like a giant snake.
Sometimes we have a knee-jerk reaction against new takes on God. This post is to remind myself I ought not condemn and criticize spiritual ideas that are new to me until I have thought deeply and prayerfully about what aspects of these visions of God might be true, with Scripture as the final arbiter (even of my own direct experience). In considering views of God that diverge from my own, even if I ultimately reject them, I always come away having learned something. I know my basket of God-knowledge will never be full, but I pray he keeps allowing me to add to it.
Sometimes my own elephant is the one that needs to be redrawn.
Who can fathom the mind of the Lord?
With whom, then, will you compare him? Isaiah 40:13, 18.