In response to the creation story found in the Bible someone once quipped, “God created humans in his image and then humans turned around and returned the favor.” That there is great truth in this aphorism is well demonstrated by Dr. Zulfiqar Ali Shah’s magisterial study of the tendencies toward anthropomorphism and transcendence in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic theological traditions.
Encyclopedic in scope and fastidious in its documentation, Dr. Shah has produced a definitive work that thoroughly and comprehensively engages the human tendency to on the one hand conceive of a God who is transcendent, omnipotent, and wholly other than humans, but on the other to portray this God using all means of anthropomorphic attribution. From the God of the biblical Old Testament who walks, talks, and expresses a full range of human emotions to the Christian assertion that God was incarnated in human form to the theological struggles between the Mu’tazilites and Asharites, the difficulty of talking about a transcendent deity in anything other than anthropomorphic terms has been a central issue for all three Abrahamic faiths.
But this is more than just a theological conundrum. The ability (and even the necessity) to anthropomorphize God has too often gone beyond the mere attempt to talk about God and has instead led to a disturbing tendency to enlist God in support of human agendas and prejudices, and this latter with ethically disastrous results. The very human God of the Old Testament who favors one nation over all others authorizes the wanton slaughter of the indigenous Canaanites under the leadership of Joshua in history’s first-recorded genocide simply because the Canaanites happen to be living on land God had promised to his chosen people, a paradigm that plays out again in early American history as largely Christian European colonialists begin making an appeal to the biblical conquest narrative as a source of divine authorization to remove the indigenous inhabitants of North America from the new “promised land” in the doctrine known as Manifest Destiny. Of course, recent history should not be ignored in this regard as God has become enlisted as the pre-eminent supporter of an aggressive U.S. foreign policy designed to extend Western hegemony over many parts of the world—not the least of which are the oil-rich lands of the Middle East—via the deployment of “shock and awe” military campaigns. And in some cases those reacting to the effects of these policies (though they undoubtedly have legitimate grievances) have enlisted God in support of spectacular displays of violence. These examples could be multiplied many times over but the problem is clear. When one talks about God in human terms it is all-too-easy to enlist God in support of human concerns.
So while it may not be possible to engage in meaningful God-talk without resorting to anthropomorphic categories, we must try to resist the tendency to fully reduce God to human form and thereby invert the divine/human relationship by “recreating God in our image.” Interestingly, the Islamic tradition might do this the best with its overt rejection of Christian incarnational theology—perhaps the supreme example of anthropomorphism—and Islam’s emphasis on utter human submission to the will of an overarching divine unity. It appears to me that one of the motivating factors behind Islamic thinking is the attempt to restore the divine/human relationship to its proper structure—humans living according to the divine plan, not God supporting human agendas.
I recently heard a Methodist pastor preach a sermon on a day that was being celebrated as Trinity Sunday in the Christian liturgical calendar. Preaching such a sermon was a difficult prospect for this pastor because she is an avowedly non-Trinitarian Christian. Feeling compelled, however, to address the doctrine of the Trinity, she said that she interpreted the trinitarian concept to be nothing more than an assertion of God’s greatness and magnitude, that God is more than or greater than what can be conceived in a single concept. After the service I approached her and with tongue in cheek congratulated her on having become a Muslim. Shocked at my comment, she replied, “What did I say?!” I responded that her metaphorical rather than literal understanding of the meaning of the Trinity was not very different from the Muslim assertion of Allahu akbar (God is greater than…). As she thought about this she seemed rather willing to accept a muslim (if not Muslim) identity. More importantly, she understood the inherent problem with conceiving of God too much within human terms.
In a world of violence and injustice, much of it perpetrated in the name of God, perhaps the way forward is by coming to recognize the level to which we humans have for millennia been recreating God in our image and allow this to motivate us to work to restore the divine/human relationship to its proper place. This will not happen without first understanding how we got to where we are today. Dr. Shah has done us all a great service by providing us with the most comprehensive history ever written on the development of the tension between anthropomorphism and transcendence in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. We will be well served by knowing this rich, complex, and fascinating history as we struggle to move forward toward a brighter future.
Robert F. Shedinger
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