Who Needs a God Who Looks Like Us?
Over my years of teaching Christian theology I have frequently encountered the problem theologian Karl Barth identified as “projection.” (Of course, he was borrowing that term from 19th century atheist Ludwig Feuerbach who argued that God himself is but a projection of humanity on the “heavens. Barth used the term for a different concept.) For Barth, “projection” is when people project themselves onto God. For example, when people think that God as “our Father” means God is like human fathers, that is projection. Barth’s Swiss theological counterpart Emil Brunner used the same idea when he argued in Dogmatics that when we speak of God as “person” we do not mean that he is like us but that we are in some way, to some extent, like him. (Barth and Brunner disagreed about the so-called analogy of being but neither one believed it is ever right to project ourselves onto God. Rather, we can sometimes, warranted by revelation, “project” God onto ourselves via the reality that we are created in God’s image and likeness, but this has to be governed by revelation.)
Some years ago I saw in a bookstore a book entitled A God Who Looks like Me. I flipped through the book and read enough to get the gist of it. The author, a woman, was arguing that she needs God to be like her. In other words, like her as a woman. But she is not alone in this. Many people, Christians and non-Christians, want God to be like them. An old saying is that God made man in his own image and ever since man has been returning the favor.
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I do not believe we need God to be like us. We need to be like God. And God has given us something of himself in the imago dei and offers us partial participation in his own life by grace.
Wanting God to be like me would be idolatry. There is nothing wrong with wanting God to be my companion, in solidarity with me, helping me to be more like him and to love others and to be the very best human in his image possible. That’s not what I’m talking about here. What I’m talking about here is the common desire, especially in some contemporary forms of theology, for a God who is like “us” (with “us” meaning some particular group of people).
Let me be blunt. God is not an American. God is not white. God is not male. God is not a capitalist. God is not a consumer. God is not literally father or mother. God is our parent and we are his offspring, but that is an analogy and in it he is the perfect parent and we are poor copies at best. God is not black. God is not female. God is not a radical revolutionary. God is not an Englishman or a German or any human nationality. God is not a big man with a beard and crown glaring down on the creation (as in Monty Python’s “Search for the Holy Grail” movie). God is not my co-pilot or CEO or business partner. (Most of these are drawn from real books or images I have encountered over the years.)
Sidebar: In recent years I have heard several African-Americans complain that white Christians have depicted Jesus as blue-eyed and blond. I have never seen such a depiction of Jesus; perhaps they have. I grew up with Sallman’s depiction of Christ as dark-skinned, dark-eyed, dark-haired but ethnically neutral, not specifically European or anything. The criticism that Sallman did not adequately represent Jesus’s Jewishness is fair, but Sallman’s Jesus is not blue-eyed or blond!) However, I do not doubt that many white Christians think of Jesus as white in the sense of being “one of them”–if not in skin color in cultural values.
Karl Barth taught us better than anyone else that projecting ourselves onto God, even wanting God to be like us, is a fundamental error. When we do that we simply deify our own being, our own values, our own ways of life. God shows us especially in Jesus Christ how poor our being, our values, our ways of life are and how God wants us to be—not physically, to be sure, but in terms of character.
Let’s take fatherhood. My late friend Stanley Grenz argued in his one volume systematic theology Theology for the Community of God that calling God “father” is actually a judgment on human fatherhood. If we know God as perfectly loving and just, then human fatherhood pales in comparison with God’s fatherhood—unless God intervenes and brings human fathers closer to his own perfect pattern of fatherhood. This is the exact opposite of what many people think.
On the one hand we know people who think God as father means God is male and if God is male then male is closer to God. On the other hand we know people who think God as father means they cannot relate to God because they had bad, perhaps abusive, fathers. This represents a fundamental failing of preaching. One task of preaching is to teach Christians that we are to be like God, not think of God as like us.
Black theologian James Cone became famous (or infamous) for saying that “God is black.” Anyone who reads him carefully knows he did not mean that God is African or has black skin. He clearly stated on page six of A Black Theology of Liberation that “black” is for him a symbol of oppression. When he said that God is black he meant that God identifies with all oppressed people. That does not mean oppressed people automatically are like God; it means that God identifies with them and helps them.
The common theological (and folk religion) problem of projection is the bane of Christian existence. People need to be taught that God is not like us and we do not need a God who looks like us but that we can by grace become like God in character—regardless of gender or race or class.
I decided to end this blog post with a very old chorus I grew up singing in church. I haven’t sung it or heard it sung in many years:
To be like Jesus; to be like Jesus.
All I ask is to be like him.
All through life’s journey,
From earth to glory;
All I ask is to be like him.
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