Saturday I attended a wonderful workshop by Lionel Corbett, who spoke about spirituality, religion and psychotherapy. He read passages from the book of Job as we talked about suffering and the God image. Corbett noted that research is pretty clear about the relationship between a person’s early experience of family life and her image of God; either she keeps to the same basic image for most of life, or she rebels against it radically, but either way, family shapes God within the individual in a lasting way.

To know what your God image really is, he said, see what happens when you’re truly frightened or suffering, and you feel like you’re four years old again. However you see God at that time, that’s the real God image you carry.

In my family, the God image was not something each person formed silently on their own. We talked about it often. We shaped God in the Bible stories we read at night and the church services we attended on Sundays and Wednesdays. Our collective God image suffered some trauma as the church we attended began to behave in disappointing ways.

As we have all grown and moved apart, so have the God images grown and moved apart. We try to understand each other but often find our differences in this regard popping up in unexpected ways. Each time someone begins a family prayer with “Father,” for instance, I am acutely aware of these differences, and I scramble for a moment to find a comfortable way to stand in a space where the Divine is understood in that way.

Ultimately all the traditions tell us that each image, any image, is false. As the Divine is beyond category and beyond understanding, any image that we can point to will automatically be one thing and not another, and therefore, not a true understanding. In this way, diversity, multiculturalism, even sitting within the microcosm of family differences becomes spiritual practice, an attempt to open to the God beyond the limitations of our understanding. It’s the difference between reaching for experience of the Divine and clutching only to its picture.

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