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Letting Go of Toxic God-Images

Spiritual direction conversations often touch into the area of uncovering and letting go of toxic images of God imbibed during life, often in childhood. In my earlier article on 'The Spiritual Life & Our Images of God' I talk through how these images are crafted in our life and the general influences and factors behind their development within us. I also discuss how our images are not the same as our ideas about God. Rather they are projections onto the Holy which may or may not actually relate to Ultimate Reality. We might well, for example, believe in a loving God, but carry an emotionally-loaded and potent deep inner image of a God of judgement and distance. There can also be a difficult psychological mirroring process between our distorted God-images and our view of ourselves. For example, if we see God as a vengeful, punishing God, we are likely to see ourselves as bad and deserving of punishment. So, de-contaminating, exploring and healing these God-images is often a very important process in our spiritual journey. They are often child-like in nature and a source of shame.

I would like to spend a little time here describing one of the most common distortions I encounter in the Christian world, that of what might be termed the 'Sky-God', and also to look from a psychological perspective at how these God-images can directly relate to our early parental experience and dynamics. I find unpacking some of this with those I accompany in spiritual direction can be very insightful and liberating for people in their spiritual life and journey.

Many of us have some kind of idea about God if asked, how we talk about God and what our concept of God is. Even atheists have a concept of God that they don't actually believe in. What is interesting is the relationship between a person's spirituality, their personality, and image of God, especially in relationship to early dynamics and family of origin, and how one's spirituality and image of God arises in this context.

It is well known that children, even as young as 3 years old, can have a rudimentary image of God. This is based on the way people behave in one's family of origin and images taught in Sunday School and so on. The important factor is that the God-image you have is effected by whether the family child-rearing practices are hard and punitive or loving and forgiving. If we have a punitive, angry parent or main care-giver then that tends to be projected on to your image of a dangerous God. If you have loving and forgiving parents, you tend to have that kind of God-image. Or you might develop a God-image that compensates for the short-comings that you had with your parents.

As well as family dynamics, we have clergy and other religious educators that can modify our image and how we think about God. A lot of religious beliefs are transmitted by culture and family, and become internalised and unconscious as a kind of felt truth. And it is not just the father-image as previously thought. Some research now suggests that one's God-image might more closely represent the characteristics of one's mother or grandmother, suggesting that our sense of the sacred can be based on early mother experiences. What is clear is that the parent that is most emotionally important to you has the largest effect on colouring your God-image.

'Our idea of God tells us more about ourselves than about Him,' Thomas Merton (1915-1968).

To illustrate this connection between parental experience and God-images more: if you have a very narcissistic parent you may well have a narcissistic God-image that sets high standards and demands obedience. If you have a child who has to meet his or her parents need for affirmation, if love and acceptance of your parents are conditional and you have a constant threat of withdrawal or parental abandonment, then you often have a God-image which is very insecure and where you are uncertain about the state of your relationship to the divine. If your parents were punitive and their love highly conditional, then you may have a punitive God-image where you believe that you will be punished or rewarded for certain behaviours, going to heaven or hell. So, people are drawn to God-images that reflect their psychological structures as individual psychodynamics are projected onto this God-image. Needless to say, one's sense of self is also radically affected by such God-representations - one is either matching-up to the desired God-image or not, and guilt and shame follow failure to do so. Realising that we project our parental images onto our God-image helps us to understand why we can develop such ambivalent God-images in our lives.

Gerald May, the well-known author, psychiatrist and spiritual director, illustrates from his own experience the importance of these early God-images in our life and spiritual development. He describes how he held onto an image of God-as-Father for many years after his father died when he was nine years old. Clinging to this image provided him with an ongoing sense of connection to his father. When he finally let go of his paternalistic God-image, May re-experienced some of the grief he had felt at the death of his father. By holding on to an image of God-as-Father, he refused to let his father die psychologically, but this also froze his relationship to God. This is an instance in which the individual's personal dynamics were radically intertwined with his God-image.

Research also suggests that one's God-image is related to self-esteem. A loving and kindly God-image tends to be associated with high esteem, presumably because one then feels worthy of God's blessing. The image we have of ourselves radically affects the way we relate to others and to the divine. People who despise themselves are more likely to imagine that they are unacceptable to God, and they may be very preoccupied with the need for forgiveness and reconciliation.

German theologian and mystic Meister Eckhart (c.1260 -c.1328) said: 'I beg God to rid me of God,' recognising the limitations of all images as being just that - only metaphors.

For those following a theistic spiritual path, as we mature psychologically, or as the intensity of our emotional difficulties softens, so our God-images also mature. We are less prone to colour our understanding of the divine with personal psychodynamic factors such as the search for a heavenly protector as a solution to chronic anxiety. The God-image will also be modified through life as our experiences confirm or deny what our religious tradition tells us. So people often end up with a very private God-image which is a combination of theological teachings, life experience and childhood residuals, much of which are unconscious. If the childhood image doesn't develop, God can be experienced as irrelevant as the individual matures. I have met many people who, having rejected the religion of their childhood, carry a toxic God-image and understanding of the Christian God that is frozen from their early years, believing even now in adulthood that this is a true understanding and representation of the Christian God.

Ultimately, in the mystical traditions of the Abrahamic theistic paths, the journey is to let go of all God-images and projections, recognising that none are adequate to describe divine reality. All are at best 'fingers pointing to the moon'. If positive, God-images can be very helpful stepping-stones along the way to facilitate our sense of relationship to divine Reality. It is very difficult to develop any devotional sense, or sense of relationship and surrender, to that which is ineffable and we tend to need the bridge of God-images to help us in our spiritual journey, ideally holding them in a loose rather than constricted way. But when we identify God with limited metaphors, we constrain ourselves to understanding God in a limited way, however positive. We always need to expand our images in our path until reaching the place of being able to let-go. Helpful examples of personal God-images along the way can be mother, father, lover, comrade, friend, saviour, servant, companion, shepherd, liberator. And non-personal images - thunder, rock, rain, gentle breeze, mother hen, lamb, still small voice, wind. We also need to find more inner images that speak to our experience of the God within, such as 'diamond' as our inner essence as described by St Teresa of Avila. But ultimately no image of God can sustain the reality of God who is beyond all imagery.

'Every person becomes the image of the God he or she adores' -Thomas Merton.

The 'Sky-God'

One highly prevalent toxic God-image is that of the 'Sky-God' based more perhaps on the mythic god Uranus (depicted above) than on true Christian understanding. Here the God-image is of a God 'up there' in the luminous heavens above the darkness here on the earth below. This God is separate from creation, not in it in any way. He is usually conceived of as masculine, observes and doesn't participate. He is not in us; more like a giant 'eye' in the sky looking down observing and needing to be pleased, offering a thumbs up or thumbs down, happy or not happy. A patriarchal God demanding obedience not relationship.

This 'Sky-God' image of God as judge is unhelpful, non-relational, highly toxic and difficult to let go of once we are attached to this metaphor as it can become part of our very identity, perpetuating the imagery of distance, judgment and shame, where 'he' is waiting for us to think or do something wrong.

Carl Jung once said that the greatest scandal of Christianity is that Christians can find God everywhere except in the human soul. Theologically, we understand that God is everywhere - God dwells with us and in us, not separate from creation.


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