False Images of God (and the Rest of Us)

In a copy of The Great Divorce that C.S. Lewis gave to Joy Davidman a couple of years before their marriage, Lewis wrote the following: “There are three images in my mind which I must continually forsake and replace by better ones: the false image of God, the false image of my neighbours, and the false image of myself.”

As usual, Lewis has hit a nail on the head. There are so many distorted images of God floating around in our heads that to say, “I believe in God,” or “I don’t believe in God,” or “I think that God . . . (fill-in the blank)” is to say something with very little discernable content. It would take hours of conversation and probing and distinguishing, and months or years of following you around and seeing how you live, to even begin to know what you meant by “God” and what your statement might mean—even to you.

This is not an argument for God’s inexpressibility or for saying God is unknowable. It’s an argument for, like Lewis, always interrogating our inadequate understanding of who God is and how God operates in the world and trying to improve it. I find that many who say (and write) that they don’t believe in God have an understanding of God (usually highly cliched and stereotyped) that I wouldn’t believe in either.Unhappily, I find the same to be true for many who say they do believe.

I do not claim to have the accurate view myself. I believe that of course all our images of God are partial and inadequate, but I think Lewis is right not to rest content with his present view, no matter how learned or pious it may be. When we are upset or dissatisfied (or confused) with God in our lives, more often than not we are acting out of some distorted notion of who God is and what he promises.

The same goes, as Lewis indicates, for our views of our neighbors (see Lewis’ essay, “The Weight of Glory,” for a higher view of your neighbor than you are likely to have), and of ourselves. Wisdom is, among other things, seeing things clearly (even if partially) for what they are and acting accordingly. We could all use more of it.