How do we imagine God?

Here is the second in our series of "best of" articles for 2011, which first appeared on July 21.  It was written by Ryan Kemp-Pappan.  Enjoy!

I have been studying the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas for the last three years. It has been a difficult for me as I read his work. I have never taken a philosophy course before. I do not understand the language used in his writings. I wish I could say I really get what it is that Levinas is getting at.

I love reading his works mainly because they disturb me and disarm me in ways little has done to me. I feel ignorant and alive as I read his works. I love feeling alive and hopeful so I read Levinas.

In a super heated cup of water way, Levinas deals with relationships and the idea of proximity, the other, and insomnia. All are words we have heard and use frequently in our lives. For Levinas proximity has a deep and penetrating meaning. Influenced by his experience with the tragic events of the Holocaust, Levinas seeks to go beyond the Greek world of logic, reason, and thought and enter the Hebrew experience of dependency, choseness, and divine intimacy.

For Levinas the system of language, culture, and relationships that allowed and perpetrated the Holocaust defied humanity and its existence demanded explanation. Why did these events happen and where in divine purpose do these events serve to connect Creator and creation?

When I read Levinas the most common thought in my mind is, “How do I imagine God? How do we imagine God?”

In a conversation between a group of Christians and Muslims students that took place while I was in seminary, a Muslim student from UT(exas) spoke of Allah (God) saying, “What ever you think, imagine, or speak of that God is. You must realize that God is not.” This is Tawhid. In the Islamic perspective there is nothing that is more than God. God did not beget a son. God is not many distinct gods or persons. God cannot be fathomed, imagined, or even spoken off. God cannot be understood, labeled, or seen. God is God and there is nothing like God.

Tawhid is what comes to mind when I read Levinas and the idea of proximity. If we view Tawhid as the claim that God is absolute and the perfect Creator, then we may have little to no difference in a Christians, Muslims, and Jews understanding of God.

Tawhid demands an orientation to the divine with the understanding that nothing is more than God and that God cannot be boiled down to an easily digestible formula. Essentially, God cannot be owned, commodified, or deciphered.

The most beautiful thing about Tawhid to me is the impossible portrait of God it provides.

What is the Christian image of God? Is God levied to the old gray bearded man sitting on the throne looking similar to the king of the sea, Neptune or the sky god Zeus? Perhaps God is Alanis Morissette from the film, Dogma. When we as Christians imagine God do we account for the diversity of creation made by the spoken word of a divine Creator?

Where does our imagination of God limit our ability to be and receive prophetic instruction to live a dangerously active life of transformation and dynamic love?

How do you imagine God? Where does this image limit you? What function does this image play in your call?

By Ryan Kemp-Pappan

Ryan is a minister with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) at Douglass Blvd. Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He has a B.A. in Religious Studies from California State University, Northridge and a M.Div. from Austin Seminary (TX). He is a co-founder of UNCO.  He loves Little Debbie Peanut Butter Bars! He is an avid runner and blogs at#RUNREVRUN. He'd like to give the world a hug but that's crazy! So he will give the world his life.