The destruction at Palmyra and the dangers of our ‘image of God’
ISIS has again captured the world’s attention, this time with the execution of 82 year old Khaled al-Asaad, who worked for 40 years as the head of antiquities in Palmyra, and the destruction and looting in Palmyra. The destruction of a world heritage site, of a site that offers us a glimpse into the beliefs and lives of people who lived centuries ago, and the savagery of an old man’s execution, has stirred up a strong response of revulsion throughout the world.
For us in South Africa this tragedy comes closely on the heels of the exposure of our notorious ‘snake pastor’ and as I reflect on these two very different, yet both deeply disturbing, expressions of faith I see a connection between them.
Bishop William Temple once observed that if people work with a wrong view of God, the more religious they become the worse religion will get, and it would be better for them to be atheists.
In my work as a spiritual director I try to help people think about how they understand who God is, that is to say to think about their own image of God. What we do, how we spend our time and resources is profoundly related to how we understand the nature of God.
In their book on Image of God, the Linns coin a very helpful phrase that; ‘we become like the God we adore’. So for example, if I project onto God the idea of a harsh judge, I am more likely to judge others harshly, or if I think of God as a divine vending machine, where if I put in the ‘right change’ I will get what I ask for, then I may begin to imagine challenging things that I need to do to get what I want from God.
We live in a time of increasing religious fundamentalism, and in the search for ‘news’ the media highlights those moments when people of faith are intolerant, violent and superstitious. This makes it even more important for those of us who strive to follow God and live good and just lives that we should also think critically about our own image of God.
As Christians, the revelation of Jesus in the Gospels is an excellent litmus test of some of the ideas we may find being offered as ‘good’ Christianity. We need to ask ourselves whether our idea of God is congruent with the figure of Jesus. Can I imagine Jesus asking this of anyone, or doing this to anyone? We also need to think more deeply about the fruits of the Holy Spirit, remembering Jesus’ advice that ‘by their fruits you shall know them’ (Mt 7:16).
To what extent does my life, my lived expression of faith show love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control? (Gal5:22) Where I fail to see these fruits in my own life, perhaps God is inviting me to think more critically of my own ‘imago Dei’.