GOD-IMAGES: Reflections & Consternations

by cari


Being with patients at end-of-life, I meet people from many different faith traditions, many who have rejected their childhood religious indoctrination, mostly because they were hurt by it, those who identify as agnostics and atheists. Many will say “I’m spiritual but not religious.” Obviously, there is a lot of overlap among the categories.  I remember one beautiful soul, upon our first meeting when I introduced myself as a chaplain, looked at me and said dismissively, “I’m an atheist.”  I responded, “I like working with atheists. At least they have thought about it!” We formed a binding relationship which lasted until his death.

What I have discovered in working with people at end-of-life and at mid-life is that we tend to discard the concept of a higher power, what we have labeled as “god,” just like we eventually discarded the childhood fantasy of the fat jolly man in the red suit who lives at the North Pole and flies around the world in a sleigh on Christmas eve. It no longer makes sense in our scientific 21st century world.  Turns out the atheist patient above, a scientist, had roots in Judaism, rejected its literalness, became a seeker and had explored Eastern traditions. When I asked him one day what his image of God was (the god he didn’t believe in), he described the Old Testament punishing God, the one with white hair and wrath in his eyes, sitting on a cloud, making a list and checking it twice! No wonder God did not fit into his scientific paradigm. Yet, his soul knew more; it had sent him on a search for answers.

Recently, I was talking to a highly educated colleague with Roman Catholic roots who seemed to be in crisis after watching several episodes of The New Cosmos.  “Am I a fool for continuing to believe in God when all that exists can be explained by science?”  Somehow, I think it’s the same Santa Claus Syndrome. We tend to anthropomorphize God, make a higher power into a human. Then, we try to fit it into our high-tech world. We forget that the images we have are God-Images. They are not God.

Jungian analyst, Ann Ulanov Belford, describes God-images as clusters of emotion-laden symbols that operate within us in a part of us called the Self. This part of our being is the principle of orientation and meaning. I like to call it the little chunk-of-god that we have, but it’s more like a place where we meet a transpersonal deity. Ulanov says that we have a “religious instinct” that operates independent of our will as a capacity for and urge toward that transpersonal deity.  That may explain why so-called atheists like my patient go on a search for…well, god.

This gets a little dicey, this distinction between gods and God-images.  Why do we keep reducing an ineffable, undefinable and indescribable transpersonal higher power to a human and then discard and dismiss it as silly and unscientific? No matter our belief system or philosophy, when we are in a difficult or dangerous situation, that “religious instinct” seems to kick in. We may not say it out loud, but we call upon something, someone higher than ourselves, to unload “all our unbearable difficulties upon…expecting help.” Jungians call these difficulties complexes, which we transfer to the God-image.  Some might call this process prayer or meditation. Yet, query whether Jungians or anyone can pray to a concept or psychological term. Ulanov reminds us that “we pray to a subject, an “I” for whom we are the “thou.”

CariGoddessMy God-images have changed over the years. The white-haired god in the sky from my childhood in small-town Ohio no longer punishes me, nor does the red, pointed tail devil disturb my peace. I’ve deconstructed and reconstructed my theology and psychology.  I try to be mindful of not referring to God-images as “he,” not because I don’t think that the divine can be imaged as masculine, but more because I don’t want to perpetuate the father God-image to the exclusion of the mother God-image which opened up for me a new way of seeing the transpersonal deity.  Having been strictly indoctrinated in a rigid patriarchal religion as a child,  I have sought out the Divine feminine God-image.  I discovered a special affinity with a Hindu goddess, Lalitha, when I was in India recently. Hindu religion has no problem with multiple God-images, knowing that they are different ways of accessing Brahman, the unchanging reality amidst and beyond the world, which cannot be exactly defined. Pretty nebulous, but we are talking here about a right-brained culture, a world away from linear-thinking Westerners.  As I attended many temples honoring Shiva, Ganesha, Vishnu, Kali, Krishna, Lakshmi and others, and participated in the elaborate rituals which are inextricably embedded in life in India, I engaged in meditation and prayer to all of them, knowing that these beautiful gods and goddesses make something that can’t be exactly defined  accessible to me. They are the “I” and I was their “thou.”

So does this reconcile the ongoing discussion between science and belief in a higher power? No. Is my friend a fool for believing in a transpersonal deity, with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s eloquent scientific presentations enticing her to atheism? As a wise scientific woman once told me, we can choose to believe. She did. How many of us have experienced something we cannot describe or even talk about, those moments of knowing when the veil parts and we feel and know we are part of something larger?  How would science begin to explain that when we have trouble putting our experience into words which do justice to what happened to us?

We can also become more mindful of our tendency toward making any reference to the Divine so concrete that it does not allow the opportunity for fluidity and freedom in the Spirit that moves in us and through us.  We can become more comfortable with who and where are in life and go to those God-images if we choose to do so.  What has helped me more than anything else is that I now identify my spirituality as Interspiritual and Jungian. What this means to me is that my spiritual journey and life philosophy are within the framework of Jungian psychology, first and foremost the individuation process and all it encompasses. The individuation process for me is a lifelong journey to wholeness and completeness, to Oneness, to Atman, if you will. My interspirituality means that I have a plethora of gods and goddesses. I find the Divine in the lush green foliage of the Northwest, the rocks and waterfalls of the Colombia River Gorge, the faces of the elderly and the curiosity of children, the finches and squirrels that visit my space and feed, and friends, like Louise, who trust me enough to reveal their innermost doubts. I draw from various religions and spiritualities, including my childhood religion. I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water. I want to keep open my options, continue to grow in my understanding of this world and the transpersonal one beyond this. While also being content with the Mystery.  And, as Mary Oliver exclaims at the end of her poem, When Death Comes, “When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular and real. I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument. I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”



2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Stephanie
    Jun 16, 2014 @ 21:40:45

    This hits very close to home, Cari. Love it!


  2. caridmaureen
    Jun 17, 2014 @ 05:24:01

    Hey Stephanie. Is that you Lindquist? Glad you are even thinking about it. Love you, Cari


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