Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Dialogue on God’s Hair Color

I was recently having a discussion with a friend about God and he objected, “But what about God being a man? Surely you don’t think he’s sitting on some throne up in the sky, do you?” The following is inspired by a real conversation, but as I have the personal memory of a goldfish, I’m going to kinda have to make up most of it. And in attempting to remember a real dialogue I’ll probably end up like Eric Cartman) and/or Plato in making my position sound totally awesome and my discussant a total fool. But this is not reality, and my apologies to my real-life discussant. I might try this style more often, especially as I have other real life events to inspire them.

So as I was saying, my friend asked me “But what about God being a man? Surely you don’t think he’s some bearded man sitting on a throne up in the sky, do you?”

I thought about it for a minute, noting how my discussant intentionally tried to make it sound as ridiculous an idea as possible. And I said with confidence, “Yes. As a matter of fact, I do.”

And then there was a wonderful silence. I’m beginning to see why Jesus said shocking things all the time. It really bothered me at one point. I used to think, “Why don’t you just answer them straight? Really, Jesus? I could have given a clearer answer in line with Christian Orthodoxy than you just did.” And perhaps I could have. But what I’m beginning to realize is that it’s not all about true information. Presentation matters.

After the silence, he asked a real question. Or rather, he asked a question whose answer he was going to pay attention to: “Why?”

I asked him, “Do you think the idea of God is something easy or hard to understand?”

“It’s very hard. Maybe even impossible.”

“Harder than physics?”

“Much harder.”

“I agree,” I said. “When we try to understand physics, we have to use symbols and metaphors. Gravity works like a bowling ball resting on a rubber sheet; a marble will ‘fall’ into its divot. Relativity can be understood by imagining twin astronauts. And so on.”

“OK. But what does that have to do with God?”

“Because,” I said, “If we think God is harder to understand than physics, then wouldn’t it be reasonable to try to understand what we can of Him using similar tools?”


“So could I say, ‘Imagine God has a white beard’?”

“Yes, but he or she or it doesn’t. It’s above that.”

“And gravity isn’t a rubber sheet. I said, ‘imagine’.”

“OK. God has a white beard.”

“What does a white beard mean?”

“Male. Unshaven.”

“Think literary. What attributes might an author be communicating if he gives a character a white beard, as opposed to, say, a black beard, or a clean chin?”

“Age. Maybe wisdom.”

“Good,” I said, “So the visual image communicates something about Him.”

“And that’s another thing. Why do you keep saying ‘Him’. The concept is above such crude biological concepts. God is not a man.”

“Isn’t He?” I asked. “Does manhood communicate anything? Would the image be different if it were a woman sitting on the throne?”

“Well, I suppose.”

“What if it were not a man or a woman, but energy. Would that image be more or less relatable?”


“So,” I said, “The image of God as a white-haired old man sitting on a throne says to the reader, ‘God is like a wise old king,’ which we can imagine, even if God’s true nature is unimaginable.”

“I envision God genderless. Why does God have to be a man?”

“He doesn’t have to be anything.” I said, “The hero of a story could have black hair or brown hair. It’s a story. The writer may give him black hair to go along with his mysterious nature, or brown hair to match his boots and ground him. God doesn’t have to be white-haired. But in Daniel 7, He is. It’s less useful to complain, “Why does he have to be white-haired?” and more useful to ask, “Why is he white-haired?” Perhaps we need to think of God less like grown-ups arguing theology and more like kids reading a story. And a kid reading that God is a man might think, ‘God is a man like Dad! He must be strong and smart and brave, and good at keeping the bad guys away and making sure there’s no monsters under the bed.’ In fact, on this attribute, God was not just pictured as a man, but took on the flesh of a first-century Jewish man.”

“But it seems so provincial! How can God just pick one race? Isn’t he more universal?”

“It’s a suit. We can’t see God in heaven, so he ‘clothes’ Himself with humanity. He puts on a suit so that we can better understand him, so that we can talk to Him face-to-face.”

“But why can’t it be another color?”

“Which would you prefer?”

“I don’t know. Don’t you think it’s a little arbitrary?”

“Definitely,” I said. “But He just as well might have picked another color suit and you could justly ask why He hadn’t put on the one He did. Keeping on the suit analogy, if He chose to mix all dyes, it would be a black suit; if He left it undyed, it would be a white suit. Even if we could understand “every color” or “no color,” black and white are both still colors. Perhaps He could’ve picked a transparent suit, but then we’re back where we started: an incomprehensible, invisible God. He’s gotta wear something. And He happened to wear the First-Century-Jewish-Man-In-Palestine suit.”

“So you’re saying that we can learn something from a first century Jewish man in Palestine?”

“Yes. Yes I do.”

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