Mirrors, or Further Thoughts on Belief

After a few false starts, I’ve finally started in on Karen Armstrong’s History of God the past few days. It’s still too early for me to have an opinion of it — so far it’s been interesting to revisit things I already knew (e.g., the development of the concept of God within the Hebrew Scriptures, the creative force of the Prophets in reinterpreting that tradition, and the revolutionary impact of the Exile on the creation of Judaism) from a slightly different angle. But the following passage made me think:

The dangers of such theologies of election … are clearly shown in the holy wars that have scarred the history of monotheism. Instead of making God a symbol to challenge our prejudice and force us to contemplate our own shortcomings, it can be used to endorse our egotistic hatred and make it absolute. It makes God behave exactly like us, as though he were simply another human being. Such a God is likely to be more attractive and popular than the God of Amos and Isaiah, who demands ruthless self criticism (54-55).

This made me think about the nature of believers’ dispositions more generally. Belief in God is like a mirror. It seems to me that this is always the case. The only question is which direction the mirror goes. Often, believers’ conceptions of God are reflections of their own image. If a person is a grumpy, angry non-believer, chances are he will be a grumpy, angry believer, facing the world with a clenched fist rather than an open hand. Similarly, if someone is kind, gracious, and loving, well, their life of faith will similarly reflect that.

The whole point of the religious life, however, as Amos and Isaiah and all the saints of all backgrounds from time immemorial know, is to invert the mirror: to see in the Divine an image of beauty you desire to reflect to the world. This is easier said than done, and as I discovered, has problems of its own. But I still think it’s a good image to remember, whether you’re a person of faith or not: Are your values reflecting you? or are you reflecting your values?

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