Chapter 4: How Do You Picture God?

Dear Mr. Brown: Letters to a Person Perplexed about Religion
by Harry Emerson Fosdick

Chapter 4: How Do You Picture God?

Dear Mr. Brown:

I am glad that, in my last letter, I happened to remark that some people who disbelieve in God are really disbelievers in some particular idea of God. You write now, wondering whether this may not be your trouble -- that you have in your mind a picture of God which makes belief in him difficult, if not impossible. This may very probably be a major factor in your problem. Men use the word "God" continually, but what varied pictures of him and ideas about him are in their minds! Whitehead, the philosopher, calls God "the Principle of Concretion" in the universe; and a young girl, surprised at first hearing that Jesus was a Jew, says, "Jesus may have been a Jew, but God is a Baptist." Between such extremes an endless variety of images occupy men’s minds when they think of God.

Inevitably, in this world of cause and consequence, we feel that there must be something causal behind existence. Canon Streeter of Oxford used to tell a story about a country mouse and a city mouse arguing about God, with the more sophisticated and skeptical city mouse getting the country mouse completely confused, until at last, trying to save some shreds of its faith, the country mouse exclaimed, "But, dash it all, there must be a sort of something!" Many people never get any clearer idea of God than that -- "a vague oblong blur," as one churchman described him. At the other extreme many retain into maturity the most vivid, detailed and picturesque portraits of God which their childhood’s imaginations knew. One college student wrote, "I have always pictured him according to a description in Paradise Lost as seated upon a throne, while around are angels playing on harps and singing hymns." No wonder that many people -- perhaps you yourself -- face as their central problem, not is there a God, but what idea of God am I either believing or disbelieving?

In considering this problem one basic fact confronts us: we cannot possibly jump outside of our human experience and find any terms with which to describe God except such terms as our day-by-day living provides. All our thinking about God has to be done with pictures, symbols, images, drawn from human experience. As a result, can anything we say about God be adequate to take him all in and describe him fully? Of course not! Since when has the Pacific Ocean been poured into a pint cup, that the God of this vast universe should be fully comprehended in human words? Nevertheless, even a pint cupful of the Pacific Ocean reveals its quality. So we go on trying to express what we think is true about God’s quality in symbols drawn from our experiences. In the Bible God is a rock, a fortress, a high tower; he is father, mother, husband, friend. Go to church any Sunday and what varied pictures of God are presented to us! The first hymn may be, "O worship the King, all glorious above." The second hymn may be, "Spirit of God, descend upon my heart." The third hymn may be, "The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want."

This use of human symbols in describing God calls out the derision of the unbelievers. Watch these Christians, they say, trying to catch the sun at noon in their verbal butterfly nets! But the fact is that the unbelievers are doing exactly the same thing. They too are trying to describe the basic, creative fact behind the universe, and they too have to say: it is most like -- and then they have no choice except to use a symbol drawn from human experience. The cosmos is most like a machine, say the mechanistic materialists. Or, as Haeckel put it, the ultimate reality is most like "a chemical substance of a viscous character, having albuminous matter and water as its chief constituents."

So, we all alike confront the same necessity. As Goethe said, "The highest cannot be spoken." If we think at all about life’s underlying reality, we have to think in limited human terms. The question is: Which elements in our experience best express the truth? "Dynamic dirt going it blind," say the materialists. "The Great Architect of the Universe now begins to appear as a pure mathematician," says Sir James Jeans, the scientist. "Our Father, who art in heaven," says the Christian.

No wonder that many people have difficulty believing in God! Like all the rest of us, they start with childish ideas of God -- a venerable bookkeeper, with white flowing beard, standing behind a high desk and writing down everybody’s bad deeds, was the way Professor John Fiske of Harvard in his boyhood pictured God. All maturing minds, therefore, face this dilemma: either they must give up their belief in God or else they must get a worthier concept of him. So many "atheists" are not really atheists at all. Whenever I have the chance I ask them to describe the God they do not believe in and, when they have done so, I generally can say that I do not believe in that God either, but that we still have the universe on our hands, and do they really think that the cosmic scheme of things is mindless and purposeless, without meaning or destiny, that

The world rolls round forever like a mill;

It grinds out death and life and good and ill;

It has no purpose, heart or mind or will.

That is what genuine atheists do think, but, in my judgment, there are not many such. I corresponded recently with a man who had sent me a manuscript in which he was plainly scornful of faith in God, but when I asked him whether he did not believe in Mind behind and in the universe, and Purpose running through it, he answered that of course he believed that. He was denying, not God, but some picture of God that insulted his intelligence.

Take Shelley, for example. He signed himself "Percy Bysshe Shelley, atheist." But, when John Keats died and Shelley was stirred to the depths, his faith in Eternal Beauty poured out of him in inspired verse, as though he had clean forgotten he had ever called himself an atheist.

The One remains, the many change and pass;

Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;

Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,

Stains the white radiance of Eternity, . . .

That Light whose smile kindles the Universe,

That Beauty in which all things work and move.

What picture of God Shelley was denying, when he called himself an atheist, I do not know, but obviously he was a worshiper of "One" eternally beautiful.

You touch the very nub of the difficulty, which troubles many people, when you say that you find it hard to think of God as "a person." I quite agree with you. To say that God is "a person" seems to imply that a human personality is being used as a mold into which the idea of God is poured. That is what scholars call "anthropomorphism" -- making a man-sized God. Long ago the Psalmist rebuked that kind of idolatrous thinking, when he pictured God as saying, "You thought that I was one like yourself." Take one look at this immeasurable universe, and obviously no intelligent mind can believe in any such picture of the Eternal.

The real problem calls for another kind of approach. Granted that the whole truth about God is infinitely beyond our comprehension -- as the Bible says,

higher than heaven -- what can you do?

Deeper than Sheol -- what can you know?

-- the question still remains: starting as we must with our limited human experience, what is the road our thoughts ought to travel out toward the truth about God? Shall we take the lowest roadway, matter, and say that down in that direction through protons and neutrons lies the course our thinking should travel? Or shall we take the best we know, personality -- consciousness, intelligence, purposefulness, goodwill -- and say that up that road, infinitely beyond our understanding, lies the truth about God? Well, you know what I think. God is not "a person" in any man-sized sense, but I am sure that he is personal, in the sense that only up the highway of man’s best can our thinking rightly travel toward the ultimate truth about the Eternal. And because man’s best is so marvelously revealed in Jesus Christ, he is my picture, my symbol, my image of God -- "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ."

When I deal with a young man like you, doubting God, I always think of George Matheson. His faith and courage inspired multitudes, and two of his hymns we are singing yet: "O Love that wilt not let me go," and

Make me a captive, Lord,

And then I shall be free.

In his early ministry he had a parish in the Scottish highlands. He resigned it. He had lost his faith. He could no longer believe in God as he had always conceived him. He decided to leave the ministry. But, though his kirk was in the Scottish highlands, they would not let him go. The Presbytery told him that he was a young man and would yet solve his theological problems. He did. He remained in the church, preaching as much vital Christianity as he could believe in, until his ideas of God expanded,

And, as the universe grew great,

He dreamed for it a greater God.

That kind of experience is normal. The greatest men of faith have always had to work their way out of old concepts, truthfully dealing with their doubts, and winning through at last to convictions honestly their own because they had to fight for them.

This is true of the Bible itself. God, at the beginning of the Bible, walking in a garden in the cool of the day, making a woman from a man’s rib, confounding men’s speech lest they build a tower too high, trying to slay a man at a wayside inn because his child was not circumcised, or dwelling on Mt. Sinai, where he says to Moses, "You shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen," is a very different deity from the one you find at the Bible’s end, "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth." The story goes that a young girl was very much troubled by some passages in the Old Testament where God, for example, commanded Saul to smite the Amalekites, and "not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass." So the girl’s father read to her some passages from the later Hebrew prophets -- such as "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"-- and from the New Testament: "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God." The girl was silent for a moment and then said, "Daddy, God grew better as he got older, didn’t he?" Well, that is one way of putting it! Certainly no intelligent man can retain his faith in God unless his God does grow better as he, the man, gets older.

Let me try another approach to your problem. Many people, puzzled about God, keep asking, Who is God? What kind of being is he? Another question, however, goes much more closely to the heart of the matter: Where is God? We do not want merely to believe theoretically that God is; we want to find him, experience him. Where, then, do we expect to find him? Where is he? The thoughts of many, when they face that question, do not turn inward to the depths of their own souls, but go out into the physical universe. God, they think, is a dim figure behind the universe. Vague and gigantic, he is off somewhere, the one who created the cosmos, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and when in religious poetry they try to picture him, they sing,

Ancient of Days, who sittest throned in glory.

Now, we may believe in the existence of a being like that, but certainly Christian faith at its best has always meant more than that. What possible meaning could ever get into the idea of loving such a gigantic cosmic sovereign? One might fear such a God, stand in awe of him -- but love him? When, however, one turns to the New Testament one finds those first Christians talking, not simply about belief in God, but about loving him. Their language is lyric. Their faith in the Divine is no cool or fearful credence, but a passionate devotion. And the reason for this goes back to their answer to the question, Where is God? Listen to them! "Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s spirit dwells in you?" You see, ask them where God is and their thought does not shoot off among the stars but goes deep down within human life -- there is God. "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come to him and eat with him, and he with me." That is where God is, in all beauty and excellence inspired by his presence within man’s life. "God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him." That is where we discover the Divine, wherever love illumines life.

Over thirty years ago I preached a sermon in which I used this analogy:

Recently I visited once more my island off the coast of Maine and fell in love again with the sea. Now, I do not know the whole sea. It is very great. I never sailed the tropic ocean where the Orinoco and the Amazon pour out their floods through primeval woods. I never watched the Antarctic sea where today pioneers press their perilous way over the polar ice pack. Wide areas of the sea are to me unknown, but I know the sea. It has a near end. It washes my island. I can sit beside it and bathe in it and sail over it, and be sung to sleep by the music of it.

So is God. He is so great that in his vastness we can think of him only in symbolic terms, but he has a near end. Indeed, the nub of the whole inquiry about the nature of Deity lies in the answer to this question: Where do we think in our experience we touch the near end of God? Do we think that only matter is the near end of him and that all the God there is is simply physical, or do we think that in spiritual life at its best we have touched the near end of Deity, and that when we start with that and think out through that as far as we can go, we are thinking most truly about him?

I still believe that to be a true analogy. The cosmic end of God I marvel at, but the near end of God I love the Divine close to us wherever there is beauty, love, integrity, truth. No one ever can believe in all of God. He is too great for even our faith to grasp. Believe in as much of God as you can -- that is the way to start. Begin with the near end of God and think your way out through that toward the whole of him.

Begin, for example, with the moral order where "whatever a man sows, that he will also reap." We live not simply in a law-abiding physical system but in a moral order also. Pilate sat in judgment on Jesus but now Jesus sits in judgment on Pilate. In the long run the Bible is right: "Be sure your sin will find you out." How ever could a chaos of aimless atoms eventuate in a system of moral cause and consequence?

Or begin with the mathematics in the universe. Einstein condenses the truth about cosmic energy into a mathematical formula, E=MC2. Man did not create this mathematical order; he discovered it. Mind meets mind at every step in our exploration of the world we live in. How can aimless, purposeless chance be the explanation of such a system?

Or begin with the beauty that Shelley sang about. There is plenty of ugliness here, but why should "dynamic dirt going it blind" make symmetry and rhythm and light and color and the endless charm of their variety? How can such an explanation account for a scarlet tanager playing in a dogwood tree, or Chopin’s nocturnes and Beethoven’s symphonies? Sometimes I think that if all other evidence for the divine should vanish, I still should have to believe that there is an artist somewhere at the heart of things.

Or begin with great character in persons who have made this world a more decent place for the human family to live in. If you have a father and mother such as I had, if through the reading of biography you have fallen in love with history’s transcendent souls, if Jesus Christ has captured your imagination and devotion, you simply cannot believe that blind, aimless matter can explain them. No! They are the near end of God.

Or begin with your own inspired hours, when you experienced what Hugh Walpole, the novelist, once described: "I affirm that I have become aware, not by my own wish, almost against my will, of an existence of another life of far, far greater importance and beauty than this physical one." You must have had hours like that. When John wrote about "the true light that enlightens every man," he was talking about all of us. There is a spark of the Divine in each of us, and sometimes it surprises us with an hour of insight, vision, and faith.

See all these near ends of God with which we can start and think our way out through them toward the whole of him. And if you say that this is too good to be true, I am sure of the answer: it is too good not to be true.

Faithfully yours,