God, the bearded old man and other thoughts

Moses_Burning-bushYesterday there was a horrific attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices. With the ensuing public discourse on freedom, religion, violence, and of course, pictorial representations, it was an ecumenical sort of day. So during a trip to the public library, I picked up a kids’ picture book about St Francis and St. Clare. My daughter enjoyed it very much, especially the artwork.

Suddenly, she ran up to me, and, wide-eyed, showed me a picture where God was represented. Guess how. Yep. BEARDED MAN.

Personally, I’m not intensely opposed to pictorial representations of e.g., the prophets, angels (though I used to be, when I was younger, and more frightened). But this encounter reminds me of how our mental maps can be shaped by such images and how culturally specific and gendered notions become deeply entangled in theological understandings. Yes, I know, they are ALREADY deeply entangled, but for such minds as children’s, there are levels and layers of entanglement.

People have to decide on their own how to proceed vis-a-vis imaginings of the Infinite (and, for instance, pictorial representations of the Prophet) but people will also keep trying to
convert others to their thoughts of the Infinite, as in Rumi’s story of Moses and the Shepherd (link to The Islamic Monthly). Moses overhears the shepherd singing in the intensity of his love:

“‘O God! O Lord!’ he heard this shepherd say,
‘Where do you live that I might serve you there?
I’d mend your battered shoes and comb your hair,
And wash your clothes , and kill the lice and fleas,
And serve you milk to sip from when you please;
I’d kiss your little hand, and rub your feet,
And sweep your bedroom clean and keep it neat …'”

godMoses, of course, corrects the shepherd for his theologically inaccurate talk about the Divine. When he next speaks to God, Moses is reprimanded for turning his loving shepherd away. God tells Moses that each person has her own manner of prayer and devotion even though one person’s prayer may seem blasphemous to the other. God is untouched by any person’s blasphemy, and God is not made any more great by a person’s devotions.

“‘I know when men’s hearts have humility,
Even if they should speak too haughtily. ‘
The heart’s the essence, words are mere effects:
The heart’s what matters, hot air He rejects.
I’m tired of fancy terms and metaphors;
I want a soul which burns so much it roars!”

(Excerpt from Rumi, The Masnavi: Book Two, translated by Juwid Mojaddedi, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford University Press (for July 2007), vv. 1724-1800), via The Islamic Monthly.)

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