Picturing the Divine
When it comes to understanding God, we need to help our children fill in the blanks
One summer afternoon, when my daughter was 6 years old, she came home from day camp with her latest art project: a picture of a very proper-looking, elderly grandfather.
"That's very beautiful, Debbie," I said, impressed with my daughter's burgeoning artistic ability. "Tell me more about it."
"Well, Mom, the counselors asked me to draw a picture of God--" She paused in her explanation, noting my rather startled expression. "Don't get excited," she reassured me. "I know that God is not an old man. When they asked me to draw God, I handed them a blank page, but they insisted that I had to drawsomething
. This was all I could think of."
At first, I was delighted with my daughter's answer. She had grown up in a religious and home setting where gender equality was the norm. She did not think that God was a man! A precocious 6-year-old, she had recognized that God was beyond human perception. I was ready to enroll her in seminary!
But then I realized that for her, God was nothing more than a blank page. At age 6, it was hard to imagine this first grader an abstract theologian. For her and others her age, a blank page is exactly that: empty. I asked myself where the rich images were to fill her spiritual world.
For children, abstract ideas are arranged in concrete ways. The question is not whether children will or should have images of God, but what images of God they have and who will supply them. Much of my writing for children has been an attempt to fill the blank page--to paint a picture that moves beyond the graying grandfather, to encourage our children's religious imaginations.
Some have said that we should not anthropomorphize God. After all, God is infinite, beyond human comprehension. Our words and images--a set of metaphors and approximations--merely limit the Divine. Yet, if we stay too abstract--or worse, if we say nothing about God--then God is largely irrelevant to our lives and meaningless in the lives of our children.
By offering our children a variety of images of God, we help them name God out of their own experiences. A single image becomes an idol. A multitude of images helps our youngsters to understand that all images are incomplete, that each image is only a partial knowing.
The rabbis taught that God is like a mirror and each person who looks into that mirror sees a different face. A generation newly freed from bondage called God "Redeemer." A people seeking guidance and protection called God "Shepherd." In the act of planting and harvesting, the farmer called God "Creator." The grandfather called God "Ancient One"; the woman who nursed her baby called God "Mother"; the man who held his baby's hand called God "Father," and the little girl who was lonely called God "Friend." Who we are and where we are in our cycle of life will determine what we see when we look into God's mirror. Each face, each name, is a partial reflection of the One who includes us all.
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