When you imagine God, what do you see? A stern, bearded male perched on a throne with angels circling his head? A beatific madonna seated with an innocent child at her breast? A black, four-armed Goddess dancing on a corpse? Indra’s net, as it weaves through and interconnects all living beings? The letters of a holy name, a colorful mandala, a sacred mountain, or a sparkling void?
Each organized religion comes with its own images of god full-blown. They may inspire awe, love, fear, guilt, or doubt. They may carry potent and life-restoring energies for a believer, or they may remain lifeless and inert for a skeptic.
According to Genesis, god created human beings in his [sic] own image. Therefore, that image is a link between humans and god. Pope John’s zealous imitation of saints is an example of the imitation of Christ as divine image. It’s an effort to remove the obstacles that separate lover from beloved in the Christian tradition.
In the Hindu Upanishads, the god images, or Ishtadevas, also mediate between the human world and the divine world. The text says, “He is, indeed, initiated whose gods within him are initiated, mind by mind, voice by voice.”
Islam permits no personified image of god. But the Koran urges a worshipper to repeat without ceasing the name of Allah and to celebrate its praises night and day. In this way, a seeker attempts to awaken and cultivate the attributes of god, as exemplified in its ninety-nine names: mercy, compassion, light, love, sovereignty, holiness, faithfulness, peace.
Buddhism teaches that the Self is an illusion (a no-self or anatman); therefore, divine images are illusory. But Tibetan Buddhists use contemplation of a god or goddess as a stage of practice. These meditations can result in the seeker’s transformation into the nature of the divine being. For instance, one contemplates Chenrezig, goddess of compassion, to become more compassionate, green Tara to remove inner obstacles, or Manjusri to sharpen the intellect. In the final stages, however, the images dissolve into emptiness, or non-dual reality.
In Bodhisattva Buddhism, the aspirant moves beyond the ego’s longing to avoid suffering and gain personal happiness. She yearns for the happiness of all beings. To achieve this goal, she desires to attain Buddhahood, to be purified from the veil of conflicting emotions and the veil of objects of knowledge. She desires only to be perfected by ultimate knowledge: the union of emptiness and compassion, which is beyond all concepts and images.
At a mythological level, we are what we imagine. The form we give to our divine ancestors in our collective and personal imaginations is the form we aspire to become. So, these images are, in a sense, architectural: we are building our own futures in the world of imagination. When gods are divorced from matter, seekers will disdain their bodies and the earth. When gods are perfect, seekers will strive for purity. When gods are erotic, seekers will see sexual practices as holy. As Episcopal priest Morton Kelsey put it, “The love and celebration of Wotan can produce Hitler and Nazism; the love and celebration of Christos, a St. Francis of Assisi.”
If our self-images evolve but our god images do not, they may haunt us like ancestral ghosts. From deep within the unconscious mind, they may sabotage our conscious desires. For example, an impersonal image of the Buddha as the earth or as a great refuge, which supports everything and has no need of support, may serve Buddhist monks well. Because Buddhism is a tradition for celibates, its image of the divine does not have to reflect our emotional experience in family life. However, for some people with family, economic, and political responsibilities, it may not serve. When one American Buddhist teacher prepared to marry, he found that the inner image of the Bodhisattva kept him from acting on his conscious intentions to build intimate personal attachments, which involve dependency and suffering.
A static god image also may feed shadows of shame and failure. An ex-Catholic woman approaching sixty called me because she could not recover from the shame and guilt she felt about having an abortion in her twenties. Although she no longer consciously believed in the religion of her childhood, unconsciously she carried remnants of the same unforgiving god image, which threatened to punish her for eternity. Like a water lily, that imago drew its life force from hidden roots in the waters of the unconscious.
We can explore the development of human consciousness through the development of this god image within. These images emerge naturally in the human soul in response to changing circumstances that require distinct symbolic solutions. In contrast to collective symbols of established traditions that are given to us in doctrines or historical events, these images arise spontaneously in our dreams, fantasies, and projections onto other people. And they evolve continuously, offering direct access to the soul, which is not mediated by an institution.
The imago is not a conscious concept; it’s an unconscious symbol, formed by a mix of inner and outer representations of divine figures, beginning with our parents, and our unique temperaments and circumstances. And because it tends to remain hidden from conscious awareness, it carries great charge, often steering the direction of our holy longing.
The spiritual seeker yearns to touch that which is just out of reach or to see that which is just out of sight. In this way, our holy longing can point the way toward an image of god, and it, in turn, can guide us in the direction of the ineffable, ungraspable, unknowable realm behind the image.
Is there a transcendent god blazing behind the image? That is a question for theologians and people of faith. I am not advocating a position here concerning the metaphysical reality of god. That is why I use the small “g” to indicate the divine image or imago dei as it lives within the human soul and as it mobilizes uncanny power in our spiritual lives.
Throughout the book I seek the invisible images at the center of the archetype of holy longing, the fantasies of the soul longing for the divine beloved. Together, they help to account for our indescribable yearnings for something Other, something beyond the bounds of ordinary life.
Like Jung, who suggested that the gods are in our own souls and appear to us spontaneously as archetypal images, I suggest that by contemplating our own sacred images of holy longing, we can uncover our own gods. Finally, we can pass through these images to a transcendent, non-dual reality — making conscious our deepest soul’s desire. For even these divine images are windows onto a greater realm.