God made us in his image and likeness and we have never stopped returning the favor.
We are forever creating God in our own image and likeness. We picture God, what we believe God to be and stand for, according to what we imagine God should be like. Sometimes that speaks for what’s best in us and sometimes it does the opposite. In either case, we are usually a long way from the God that Jesus revealed. That is why we often believe in and preach a God who, like us, is jealous, arbitrary, legalistic, unfair, fearful, consumed with protecting himself, vengeful, unforgiving, and violent.
It is no accident that in every age, including our own, the worst violence, bigotry, and murder are usually justified in the name of God, even when this is done in the name of atheism or secularity. Today we see this, most clearly perhaps, in Islamic extremists who explicitly invoke the name and the cause of God as they randomly unleash murder, but, in subtler ways, we see this in every religion and secular ideology. At some point, somewhere, invariably there is divine justification for something that is unjust based upon a “God” who has been shaped according to human imagination, with its very real limits, biases, wounds, and self-protective instincts.
Fortunately, we have innate mechanisms for health and whenever we go wrong something inside reacts. That isn’t just true for our bodies, but too for our souls. Faith has its own inbuilt immune system. We want God on our own terms, but ultimately it doesn’t work. Divine love and divine revelation are pure gifts and the inner dynamics of faith insure that they have to be received as pure gifts or not received at all.
That is why, as we see from Scripture, real revelation, a true in-breaking of God into our lives, always comes as a surprise, as something we could not have anticipated, programmed for ourselves, manipulated, or even imagined. Thus scripture tells us to make a special place in our lives for the unfamiliar, the stranger, the foreigner, the person who is utterly different from us. What’s unfamiliar is what brings us God’s revelation. One of the marks of true revelation is that it stretches us, takes us into new territory, and opens us up to realities we cannot imagine.
And that is why we sometimes experience dark nights of the soul in our faith and religious beliefs. What happens is that our religious securities, including our imaginative sense of God’s existence, disappear and we are left not just with a new and surprising (to us) insecurity in terms of our religious belief but, more painfully still, the incapacity to imagine with any certainty the existence and nature of God. Our inner powers to feel, imagine, and sense God’s existence dry up and leave us in a certain “agnosticism”.
Mystics call this a dark night of the soul and assure us of two things: First, that God doesn’t disappear, but rather what disappears is our former (self-interested) way of knowing and holding onto God. Second, that our religious securities need to disappear precisely because they have too much of us wrapped up inside of them. The agnosticism we feel (and agnostic means to not know) is a healthy unknowing, an unknowing that opens us up to a purer and a deeper way of experiencing God. Essentially what a dark night of the soul does is clear away false debris, false securities, and the manipulative images of God that we created for ourselves.
When C.S. Lewis was struggling with his decision to become a Christian, one of his major hesitancies came from the fact that he was unable to imagine for himself the mystery of redemption, how Jesus’ death could have a saving effect upon others. One of the turning points in his decision to become a Christian came as the result of challenge from .J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of Lord of the Rings. Hearing Lewis express his doubt, Tolkien simply said: “That is a poverty of imagination on your part!” Nothing could be more true. God, and the great mysteries, are indeed beyond our imaginations and sometimes when we try to imagine them we experience an agnosticism precisely because we end up meeting ourselves rather than the true God. And we shouldn’t believe in ourselves!
Paul Tillich once defined real religion as what we attain when, in our religious quest, we attune ourselves to a reality and a consciousness that is beyond our own, as opposed to touching what is highest inside of ourselves or highest within the collective ideals of humanity. In real religion we meet God, not ourselves.
But we struggle mightily to attune ourselves to real religion, to stop forming God in our own image and likeness. And that is why faith is often felt as a darkness rather than as a light, as a yearning rather than as a certainty, and as a feeling of painful absence rather than as a sense of joyful presence.