God is not really a king.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my deepest held images of God: why do I hold them? Where do they come from? What do they say about the Christian faith I was raised in? What do they say about me? How do they hold me back? Or how could they possibly be liberating?

I used to be afraid to think about images of God. I used to think that if there were no more images of God, God would disappear for me.

Yet, personal religious experiences that I’ve had recently have changed my mind.

I believe there’s Something there, something bigger and more amazing than I can comprehend. Something that feels like love and sings wisdom into my heart. I call that something God.

It’s hard to talk tangibly about something, though, ya know?

So, here we are, humans with limited (as amazing as they are) mental capacities, which are reigned in even further by the confines of language. And we need to talk about. . .

Something. 

I imagine the writers of the Bible had this problem. How to write about something?

And like good writers, the Biblical authors explained this unfamiliar something by comparing it to something their audience would find familiar.

We need images of God. They help us talk about God. They help us pray. They help us understand. They help us fight injustice.

But sometimes these images take hold. Sometimes they become idols.

Instead of worshipping God, it seems like often we worship a father.

We worship a king.

We worship a lord.

But we don’t worship I AM WHAT I SHALL BE. We don’t worship God.

We worship men.

As Elizabeth A. Johnson says in her book She Who Is, “The theistic God is modeled on the pattern of an earthly absolute monarch, a metaphor so prevalent it is often taken for granted.” She reminds us the hard truth that, “even when [this monarch] is presented as kindly, merciful, and forgiving, the fundamental problem remains. Benevolent patriarchy is still patriarchy.”

I think sometimes we let our patriarchal, imperialist, domination-based society dictate our faith.

We lose sight of Jesus as God with us, and focus on God over us. 

I think even masculine images of God can be extremely useful in confronting patriarchy, and other systems of injustice. If God is king, then I am not subject to earthly rulers. If God is father, then I am not subject to men.

Yet these images are so easily appropriated by those in power. If God is king, then king is God. If God is father, then father is God.

I don’t suggest we leave images behind. But I suggest we stop, and we think. And we remember.

We must remember God is not really a king. 

If Jesus is any indication as Christian doctrine says, God looks nothing like earthly kings. God died a mockery of their robes and crowns. God rose in victory over death–the strongest threat that powerful men have in their arsenal–and in all God’s victorious glory God . . . went and fried up some fish and chilled with some friends.

The heavens are not literally God’s throne and the earth is not literally God’s footstool.

God is not really a king, and we need to be extremely careful when images of ruling men in a patriarchal society begin to inform our faith. That is when religion’s power of liberation gets wrestled away by the very oppressors it once challenged.

God is not a man.

God is what God shall be.

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  • http://lanahobbs.wordpress.com lanamhobbs

    The first question that comes to my mind after reading this is ‘but then how do we know what god is?’ and the sort-of-answer i can think of is this: when we think we have nailed down exactly what god is, then we are probably worshipping an idol.
    …. That’s the part of me that wants to believe in god. the other part doubts the existence of god altogether; it would answer a lot of my ‘why, god’ questions, for sure…

    • http://erikweaver.wordpress.com erikweaver

      Good observations and questions!

      I too think when one feels they have 100% identified God they have constructed an idol instead. As I mentioned in my other reply, God is Ineffable. We forget this at our peril – or worse, at the peril of others! “Negative theology” is one response to this – we identify what God is *not* as opposed to what God *is* in an effort to remind ourselves that the Ineffable God is always open-ended. Certainly from our human perspective.

      Regarding doubts of God, I personally think the mind is the wrong tool to answer this question. Westerners (such as myself) are inclined to *think* about God and attempt to define and describe God. This is using our comprehension to come to an understanding of the Divine. But I sense this is either a mistaken approach or at the very least a relatively ineffective approach. The Ineffable is forever beyond the grasp of the limited human intellect. It may provide a starting point, and it is useful, but speaking for myself, I suspect when I only limited myself to this tool -my mind and intellect- I was missing the more subtle aspects of the Divine.

      Better I have come to believe -or perhaps just as a later stage?- is seeking an apprehension through our heart. By this I mean to lay aside our mind and intellect. Instead “see” with our “heart.” This I find to be an experiential approach. It is the path spoken of by the mystics. It is the path of acting and behaving and engaging in some process of seeking the Divine.

      I recently read a nice turn of phrase -I forget who said this, so I can’t give the citation- but they basically said ‘where you read black, I read white.’ They were speaking of reading between the lines (the white spaces) of our sacred texts. I find this to be a rather poetic way of expressing these ideas.

      And there is another dimension to such questions too – where are *we* as the person asking the question? There are various stages of faith. Some systems describe three or four levels, and some describe ten or more stages we each may travel through as we grow. The specific system which one finds more resonate is less important than getting the idea that much as we grow from children, to adults, and to elders, we may have a similar spiritual progression over the years.

      A simple example of this is found in I, We, Us thinking. First we all think in terms of “I.” This is the natural result of being raised from a human baby. By and by, we begin to also identify “We” groups – our family, school, city, etc. Our scope of concern is growing. The “Us” refers to extending this “family” or “group” identify to the entire world. Some call this Unity Consciousness. But the specific terms we use in describing this process does not matter. The important bit is found in the progression from the I-centric view of the world, to the We- and Us-centric view of the world.

      (My opinion is that the opposite to Us-thinking, is Them-thinking, resulting in the all too common Us-vs-Them problems harming so many.)

      So this too complicates the question of God and in finding answers which speak to us individually. In which stage of faith is the person seeking God currently residing? The answer to this preliminary question, I feel may help frame the question and answer to the question of God.

      We all are where we are at -spiritually speaking- and few of us are in the same place at the same time ;)

      One of the most brilliant speakers I have ever heard is Ron Miller (who died last May). He gave a series of talks to the Theosophical Society. These are well worth watching, and watching again. A former Jesuit and professor of religion, he is the closest I have ever come to having a “hero.” Words cannot fully express my respect for him and his work. I highly recommend watching his talks, and if one likes them, to read his books. Ron Miller has offered me many useful and spiritually enriching insights.

    • Patrick

      In the Orthodox (Big-O) Churches the Via Negativa approach to theology is often considered to be the dominant theology. This is a theology that works in terms of what we cannot say of God rather than what we can. If we are to speak meaningfully on the subject of God it may be necessary to approach in that direction (as I would say the original post does.)

      Just be glad you aren’t dealing with Nagarjuna’s four-fold negation which says that once the Buddha has entered Parinirvana we cannot say he exists NOR that he doesn’t exist NOR that he neither exists nor does not exist NOR that he both exists and doesn’t exist.

  • JansEmail

    Unsubscribing to this site…..know that someday accountability to the harm done on this site will be necessary….

    • http://www.quest-church.com Ed Taylor

      JansEmail – did you even READ this?

  • http://vjstracener.wordpress.com vjstracener

    I think this is a fundamental truth that is often overlooked. God is not Father, Priest or King, rather God is the I AM. We need to quit putting god in a box.

  • http://twitter.com/ChrisJonesUW Chris Jones (@ChrisJonesUW)

    Absolutely right–biblical authors draw upon the images they knew in their own world to conceptualize God. We cannot dispense entirely with those images; neither should we absolutize them and worship our image of God rather than the God who transcends them. And I think we absolutely must use images that we know in our own world to aid us in conceptualizing God. We orient ourselves by means of tradition; that doesn’t mean we have to stay there.

  • Ryan Robinson

    The King (or Queen) imagery is vital for the reasons you started hinting at near the end. If God has all power, and the way that God chooses to use his/her power is to give it up for others, even others who considered themselves his/her enemy or outcasts like women and Gentiles, that tells us some radical things about how we are to approach our own power. The problem just comes when we start saying “Caesar was ‘Lord’ and he did these things, therefore God does the same” (Caesar can be substituted for any earthly power-over governance) when the biblical writers actually meant to convey the radical difference between what God’s kingdom looks like in comparison to Caesar’s. If God is really our King/Queen/Lord, it implies that Caesar is not and we need to follow Jesus’ example rather than Caesar’s. Yes, we’ve misused the term in the past but I really think we need to redeem it rather than abandon it.

    • http://timdedeaux.com Tim Dedeaux

      I think Kurt Willems uses the term “unkingdom” to describe this. I love the idea of God being a king, but also an UnKing. He has all power, but empties it to become a mere human man, walking around on earth, eating, sweating, even defecating. I mean, what kind of God puts himself in that kind of position willingly? And then to go all the way to dying?

      It seems like the entire message of the New Testament can be summed up in Mary’s Magnificat: the power structures will be overturned, freedom will be brought to the captives, and all because God overturned his own power, emptying himself first.

  • http://www.quest-church.com Ed Taylor

    Indulge me for a sec: might another way to look at it be that God is king, but not an earthly king? He is father, but not an earthly father?He is lord, but not an earthly lord? Rather he supersedes earthly kings, lords, and fathers, redefining them in new terms that, indeed, we cannot fully understand. He is redeeming them by redefining them. But he is all of these things and none of them, so we can only worship him as an amalgamate – any one picture would be an idol. Waxing philosophical…

  • http://erikweaver.wordpress.com erikweaver

    Ah yes, dealing with the Ineffable!

    What I hold in my mind is limited by my mind. Therein lies the problem.

    I suspect this is why so many religions have different models of the Divine. The Ineffable we cannot grasp, by definition. Yet we are here as limited mortals, and as such need something onto which we are able to grasp. The trick is in reminding ourselves we are reducing the Ineffable to the status of Archetype, if not Symbol. Useful to be sure. A requirement for most of us.

    As the old saying goes, remember that the finger is not the moon!

    This also provides insight as to why mystics are so difficult to understand. The experience of the Divine is greater than our ability to express that experience. No matter what we say, we are unable to really express what we experienced.

    Yet we have to work with what we do have access to, and to the degree this increases compassion and love for others, we are on the right track. None of this is to suggest we should cease striving to apprehend the Divine. I feel that we are well served in our efforts to do so.

    I find my efforts to apprehend the Divine is more about the Journey I am undertaking than the Divine Itself. And the “right” Journey brings into the world more Light and Love. Theory and reading and study all have their proper place. But the fruit is found first in loving-accepting ourselves and then in loving-accepting others. Helping another person is of more value than all the spiritual reading and writing that has ever been done.

    In this sense, worship is a process. I suspect our best means of worshipping the Divine (whether we understand this to be an Ineffable Something or in the person of Jesus, or in another Personification of the Divine) is to be found in our effort to act as if we are a channel through which the Divine is able to more readily flow into the world, and positively effect ourselves and others.

    But I do not think the Divine benefits from this process. The Divine is All-That-Is-Shall-Be. Rather it is we and those with whom we interact who benefit by this process. I believe the Divine allows us to act as conduits for the in-flow of Divine Love into this world so that we grow and learn to better love. We learn best by doing. Be that learning to ride a bicycle or Loving God/Self/Other.

  • http://www.facebook.com/matthew.e.knight Matthew Knight

    My theological reading has been all over the map lately, and doesn’t necessarily add up to a coherent picture. On the one hand stuff that’s much in line with your reflections here, apophatic/negative theology via Meister Eckhart and Sufi thinkers like ibn al-’Arabi and Suhrawardi (Peter Rollins and, I think, Rob Bell, have started taking up this line in contemporary popular Christian theology). Very useful to remember that our understanding of God is always based on human language and categories, and thus obscures as much as it reveals.

    On the other hand, I’ve also been interested in some of N.T. Wright and Scot McKnight’s ideas, where God (not Caesar, Empire, Mammon, military-industrial complexes…) being King is absolutely central. I think this can be a useful corrective to nationalism creeping into religion, and also a counter to consumeristic or health and wealth mentalities. A reminder that allegiance is due solely to God, a “ruler” with decidedly different standards than those of the world, can be freeing. Similar ideas were influential in starting to loosen the rotten infected tooth of religious conservatism from my, err, spiritual gums as it were, a few years ago. I recognize that the patriarchal baggage of a hierarchical God is unhelpful and overwhelming in many cases though. I also recognize that I’m only quoting male theologians here, which bothers me. Time to do something about that.

    • http://erikweaver.wordpress.com erikweaver

      Karen Armstrong, and Elaine Pagels, come to mind a female authors well worth reading.

  • http://leftcheek.wordpress.com jasdye

    I think this gets to an anarchist view of God – which I like and which I find appropriate for May Day. ;)

    • http://moonchild11.wordpress.com Sarah Moon

      I find it appropriate for all days :)

  • Morgan Guyton

    Extrabiblical speculation on the implications of God’s kingship by the 11th century monk Anselm is what created penal substitution theology. Instead of defining God in terms of Jesus, we make a good cop bad cop duality out of the OT God and NT Jesus and the cross is seen to satisfy the needs of the OT God who remains invulnerable and distant which completely undermines the whole point of Jesus’ incarnation.

  • pennerm

    Footnote to All Prayers – C.S. Lewis

    He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
    When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring Thou,
    And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
    Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
    Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
    Worshipping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
    And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
    The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
    Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
    Our arrows, aimed unskilfully, beyond desert;
    And all men are idolators, crying unheard
    To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.

    Take not, O Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in thy great
    Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.

    • http://erikweaver.wordpress.com erikweaver

      Beautiful. C.S. Lewis did have a way with words!

  • http://whenur64.wordpress.com whenur64

    Often we worship God as a father because Jesus, when asked how to pray, gave us His way of praying…to His Father.

    OUR FATHER WHO ART IN HEAVEN…

    Also, how can I not think of my Creator as the Father, when Jesus constantly called Hom , Father…

    “As the Father has loved me, so I shall love you.” And how did Jesus love us? By dying on a cross…

    • http://erikweaver.wordpress.com erikweaver

      I would normally not say anything, but given this is on a “recovering Fundamentalist” blog, I shall offer a few thoughts which I hope might add something to the conversation as to why Jesus may have chosen to die….

      This idea of God becoming Jesus so that God may kill Himself to save humanity has at least a couple of alternative interpretations. Given this may be one of the least flexible points in a Fundamentalist theology, perhaps it is with considering more thoroughly, or from another perspective?

      First, the underlying assumption of Original Sin.

      Some consider this to be a flawed interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures, and among these are the few Jewish professors I’ve heard speak to this point, who state they find this to be incorrect. Sin is an error, a “missing of the mark.” Christians tend to take much, much darker view on this than intended in the Hebrew scriptures. This skullies the idea of Original Sin. How can God kill Himself for Original Sin, when the Christian concept of Original Sin is mistaken?

      Second, Original Sin and the need to wash such sin away, is an exoteric idea (an outer idea). There are also esoteric (inner) interpretations. One might consider reading “Inner Christianity” by Richard Smoley if interested is such thoughts.

      Exoteric (outer) Christianity is more concerned about public worship and theological apologetics. Esoteric (inner) Christianity is more concerned with what is happening inside each person as an individual, and how oneself specifically resonates with the Holy Spirit, and what is going on inside oneself; certainly much more-so than what is going on outside of oneself.

      Third, is the consideration of the title Messiah (Christ) itself. In the Jewish world of the first century of the common era, the Messiah was to be the Anointed One (the meaning of the word Messiah in Hebrew, and Christ in Greek). Kings were anointed, and most at the time of Jesus, if they were anticipating a Messiah at all, were expecting either the New King, or a New High Priest, or perhaps one who united these roles.

      But the most important point is that a violent overthrowing of Roman rule was anticipated as one of the primary roles of the Messiah.

      Jesus would have known this. And he was in Jerusalem at the most popular sacred holiday of the year – Passover (as we Christians call it). A great number of people flooded the capital city, the city of the Temple, and the only place they could offer sacrifice upon the altar of the Temple. Is was a very unsettled part of the year, and Rome was well known to be very quick to put down potential uprisings and riots by the sword. They didn’t fool around about such matters.

      There is no evidence that I can think of that seriously suggests Jesus saw himself as a Messiah who would overthrown Rome. The Kingdom of which Jesus spoke was not of this world (yet it was/is already here among us!). So another very possible interpretation is that Jesus did not wish to see his family and followers slaughtered by the Romans. So he gave himself up, and he submitted to being executed as the lowest of criminals.

      He submitted to Roman execution so as to avoid a riot and/or the slaughtering of untold numbers of people. I personally find this quite reasonable and for me far more meaningful of an explanation of the specifics surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans.

      Again, this is an esoteric interpretation, not the stock exoteric explanation we usually hear spoken of, and it is certainly *never* something I ever heard from a fundamentally orientated church. Yet this is what I have come to believe to be a far better and more meaningful explanation. But that’s just me ;)

      • http://whenur64.wordpress.com whenur64

        Something to think about… Thank you for sharing.

        Also, I can become overwhelmed with written (and spoken) words yet the many seem to be reduced to the same few… God is the Most… The most High… The most loving, and everything in between. If some see Him as King, He is the most King…the most loving King.

        Not everyone has the ability to articulate on paper the things God shares with them in the sacredness of their own heart. Still, for some, everything has to be a well oiled machine before it can run…or in this case, make sense from the incomprehensible.

        “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar, and to God, the things that are God’s.”

        I render my love to the Almighty Lover because this is why He made me…to know, love and serve Him…
        my King…my Father.

        • http://erikweaver.wordpress.com erikweaver

          Yes, if I understand you properly, I would certainly agree. God is the Most in all catagories. In fact, God is More than the Mostest. A friend of mine says it this way: “God is all that, and more!” No matter what our human mind comes up with to describe God, it falls short… God is all that and more.

          I find a related idea is panentheism. God is all that is to be found in our universe; God is all that *is* and as some have said, God *is* the very “be-ing” in being. At the same time, God is all that is outside the limits of our universe: beyond not-being; beyond not-time. This is why any attempt to comprehend fails. Words fail. At best, we catch an impression through our apprehensions. The Shadow of the Presence of G-d (Shakinah).

          “God is all that and more” ;)

          • http://whenur64.wordpress.com whenur64

            “Who do you say I am?”
            When Peter replied to Jesus with his answer, “You are the Messiah…”, Jesus tells Peter that flesh and blood did not reveal this to him, “But My Father which is in Heaven.”

  • http://valuesfromscratch.blogspot.com Marian

    As I’ve rejected my evangelical, absolutist upbringing, I find myself constantly moaning that I feel like I know more about who God isn’t than about who God is. And for someone who grew up as the “good Christian girl” who always had all the answers, who always won Bible trivia games, and all that nonsense, that feels like a failing. Thank you for reminding me that not knowing is a good thing. That it is okay to hold my beliefs and at the same time be uncertain about them. I needed that reminder today.

    • http://erikweaver.wordpress.com erikweaver

      You are still a “good Christian girl”! ;)

      We are all allowed to search for deeper, more personal meaning in our spiritual lives. And we certainly are in good company when it comes to not understanding Jesus and God! Just read the Gospel of Mark! Mark 16:8 reads:

      “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

      This is the shortest ending of the Gospel of Mark. It is the one I favor, as it is in keeping with the rest of the book. I agree with those scholars who believe the rest of the book was added later by those who just could not stand such an “ending.” But I find it is brilliant! It reminds us that even those nearest to Jesus did not really understand him. That we too fail to really understand him, is just fine! In the meantime while trying to figure it out, just concentrate on bringing more love into our own life and the lives of those we meet. The rest will sort itself in time.

      The XIV Dalai Lama says something similar. It goes something like ‘be good to others and show them compassion; and if you cannot do this, at least do not cause them harm.’

      We cannot fix our own self, let along others, and certainly not the world, in one fell swoop! It takes time and starts within ourself. It starts by eliminating negative and evil actions. Then by limiting negative and evil thoughts. Then by bringing love into the world whenever and wherever possible. I find this to be my best goal for today and tomorrow. One day at a time. Everyday. Moment to moment.

      This way once I have “figured it all out” I will have done as little harm as possible along the way. And maybe even brought some love into the world on occasion.

      It sounds like a small enough thing. But just imagine, if everyone in the world simultaneously did this for one day? A week? Month? Year? How different would be our world! :)

  • http://lanahobbs.wordpress.com/ lana hobbs

    I think if people think they have god nailed down as ‘king’ or ‘father’, they’re probably worshiping an idol.


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