Hey, here’s an idea: in this fallen, debased, forgetful state we misperceive God – the sole God – this way; there is only one God, but at this level our view of him is distorted into the illusory figure of Yaldabaoth, so that even if and when we become aware of God we are alienated from him. He assumes (to us; the fault lies with us) a horrific, punishing, cruel, deranged aspect – but this just shows the debased, occluded state we are in!
Philip K. Dick has caught on to one of the secrets of world history: our encounter with God is distorted. The Gnostic Demiurge, Yaldabaoth, can only be seen as a projection placed upon God himself, for there is only one God. The evil or crazy God of the Gnostics is not really God, but the image of God we have created as a result of our own failed comprehension of God. The history of human history and its encounter with God must, in a way, be understood in this fashion: God is there, revealing himself, and humanity is there, obscuring God, creating a false image of God based upon its obscured vision of God. Popular images of God in history can be based upon real encounters with God, but the human subject, incapable of understanding God as he is, projects a cover for God which the subject can then comprehend. It might be that this cover was understood as such by the original people encountering God, but through time, it was misconstrued and created an image which was believed to be what God is – a God who is comprehended by humanity.
One of the great problems Christians have to face is that the way they have described and explained God to others does not, in the end, actually describe God. Even in their encounter with God, constructions are made. A popular image of God develops which runs contrary to the nature of God that can be discerned through the union of revelation and reason. This image, while containing elements of the truth, nonetheless is corrupted by all kinds of projection. It is what people think about when they think of the word God. While theology works to purify the popular image of God, the way most people know and understand God is through the lens of their own sin. They don’t know about or heed what theology says. They know the popular image, and they either worship it or they denounce it. Only slowly does the popular image change as society changes; new sins develop, new projections are put upon God, while old sins no longer hold sway, and their impact upon God is removed.
While there are many streams of atheism in the world, one of the most popular sources is the internal discord atheists discern within the popular image of God. They see what is said about God is self-contradictory. They see the human projection which is used to create the image of God. Combining the two together, they denounce what they see. There is truth in this – all falsehood is based upon some truth, and here, unbeknown to the atheists themselves, their rejection is valid, because the image of God is false. “It may be that modern atheism is providential in showing us the urgent need to purify our idea of God, and to raise the dialogue to a biblical and patristic plane, above all scholastic systems, all purely academic theology.”Atheists call Christians to the task of purifying their image of God, to let God be God and not misrepresent him based upon our systematic constructs and the projections the place over God. However, when they move beyond the popular image and reject God because of the popular image, they err – as anyone would err if they reject science because scientists have had a history of creating and propagating erroneous hypotheses. They might, for some time, hold sway, but, in the end, their negation cannot last.
It is easier to proclaim the call to purify our image of God than it is to do it. We rely upon our experience of God, the experience of others with God, and reason to help present a newer, better image. However, when we encounter God, sin gets in the way – it becomes a kind of spiritual cataract which distorts our vision of God and so makes us see God in the light of sin, a God who ends up taking on our sin so that he becomes like a monster to us. It is our sin which we see; it is our sin which corrupts our image of God. If we do not know this, we end up becoming terrified by what we see and understand of God. If we know it, we might know we have to overcome our sin to get a better vision of God, but on the other hand, we will still talk about God in an erroneous way when we talk about God with others. We might and should try to overcome this through analogical talk – but even then, we must appreciate that our audience might not understand such analogy and follow the letter of what we say instead of engaging the spirit which lies behind it. Once again, then, God gets distorted.
God is love, but what does this love mean? It is the source of bliss, but it can also be the source of our suffering, as Sergius Bulgakov explains. “God’s love, it must be said, is also His justice. God’s love consumes in fire and rejects what is unworthy, while being revealed in this rejection.” God raises us up and purifies us as we are in his presence; but if we grasp after sin and try to follow sin, and lean on it for our being, we will find God’s love to be painful, and the fire of love will be a fire of judgment, judging us as long as we hold on to that sin. If we do not comprehend that we, in our grasping for sin, make such suffering, our understanding of God, our witness of God, be one which declares God as rejecting us, when in reality, through our sin, we have rejected him. Our image of God, marred by our sin, projects upon God what we do to him. This is exactly what the fires of hell are all about – the self-imposed suffering we create by grasping after that which holds us down, the unbeing of sin.
The Torah reveals to us a history of God revealing himself to Israel. It is recorded and described by humans, and so, without surprise, human frailty and misperception get in the way. The spirit is lost to the letter of the text, and the letter of the text slowly can lead to a monstrous image of God. But behind that image, there is the true God encountering and helping Israel, and a proper understanding of the text (taking the spirit and not the letter of the text) allows one to see the God of love who is further revealed in the incarnation. The whole of the Torah speaks of Jesus – and so, it is right to look for him in them. “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me” (John 5:39 RSV). But if you look for Jesus in the letter of the text, you will barely see him. You must look deeper, look to the hidden truths contained in the Torah, spirit behind the text and not the letter, and then you will see Jesus, and you will see Jesus all over the Torah (as can be attested by the writings of Origen). In them you will see, not a monster, but the God who is love revealed.
But that love, when encountered in sin, is seen as wrath. Is it not surprising that, before the final revelation of Christ and the full institution of grace, the way most understood God was one which saw him full of anger and a barely controllable urge to destroy sinners? Sin contaminated the vision, and the letter which got put out put forth that wrath more than the love which lay behind it. It was sin which made this vision. But behind it, we can still see God the liberator, God the lover of humanity whose work is to liberate those afflicted by the structures of power sin creates in the world. This, we see, is what is shown in full in Jesus, who in the purity of his humanity, is able to present to us the fullness of God’s love without any contamination in the message (and who, in his divinity, is capable of liberating us from our sin). To follow Jesus is to let him liberate us from sin, and with it, all the false ideas we have of God due to it – we must let him be put in control if we want him to lead us to the promised land:
Now revelation is precisely this: God himself is manifest as totally different from any idea that we can have about him. For God reveals himself by allowing human persons to receive themselves from God and also to receive God as other. To believe in God is therefore for persons to open their heart and their intelligence to a purification compelling them to accept that they are not the master of the one who comes to them, and to accept that they are not their own master.
When we see God and are not ready for God, he will scare us. He will terrify us. “He is trying to signal to us to wake up; but, not knowing our condition, we misperceive him this way (i.e., Palmer Eldritch) This is both a symptom of our fall and, as well, perhaps the greatest tragedy, this alienation from God.” In the 60s, PKD had a vision of a great monstrosity in the sky, which was used to create the character Palmer Eldritch, who he sometimes would sometimes believe represented a misunderstood visage of God, while other times, more as an evil, Satanic figure who imitates the way of God. Both ideas have value, and both could, in their way, be true – for the spirit might be God, but the letter can be used to establish and create a dark, evil parody of God which will eat us up with his empty nihilistic unbeing, reversing what happens to us when we partake of the eucharist where God raises us up and incorporates us in his absolute being. And in this way, have we not come to understand, at last, the spirit and the letter in relation to the Holy Scriptures, such as with Torah? St Paul tells us the spirit gives life and the letter kills – here we can see why; the letter takes our sin and uses it to destroy us, to make our encounter with God one of great sorrow and pain, while the spirit seeks to free us from sin and so encounter God with great, eternal joy, where pain and sorrow are no more.
 Philip K. Dick, Exegesis. ed. Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2011), 754-5.
 Paul Evdokimov, Ages of the Spiritual Life. Trans. Sister Gertrude, S.P. Revised trans. Michael Plekon and Alexis Vinogradov (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 42.
 Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb. Trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2002), 475.
 Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger, Dare To Believe. Trans. Nelly Marans and Maurice Couve de Murville (New York: Crossroad, 1986), 117.
 Philip K. Dick, Exegesis, 755.