Concepts of God

All human concepts of God are limited and flawed

  • In temples and shrines throughout mainland China a host chungfuof gods and goddesses are worshipped by the Taoist faithful. But chief among them is Grandfather Heaven, who is also known as the Jade Emperor. He is invariably portrayed as a wise, middle-aged king, dressed in splendid robes and wearing signs of authority.
  • The ancient Mayas of Latin America (100 – 900 AD) also believed in a range of gods and goddesses. They called their ruling god Itzamná and represented him as a victorious warrior or as a snake. He was the creator-god, as well as lord of the fire and of the hearth.
  • guinegodThe tribes of Guinea, on the west coast of Africa, believe in a supreme god who is very powerful, but hidden, and many smaller gods and goddesses. The supreme god is the god of life and fertility. In the clandestine rites of secret societies, his power is invoked to further personal aims.

If we study the religions of the world, we cannot but be struck by the almost infinite variety of images people have made of divine realities. And, almost without exception, they have cast God (or the gods) as replicas of themselves.

Anthropomorphism, i.e. speaking of God as if he/she/it were a human being, is also found in the Judeo-Christian tradition. When we call God “our father who is in heaven”, we are describing him/her/it in human terms. We may say, “God hears my prayer. God protects me wherever I go. God rejoices when I do good, he is angry with me when I do evil”. In all such cases we are ascribing human actions and human feelings to God.

There is nothing wrong in itself in using human images and words; as long as we are aware of the distortion they necessarily imply. In fact, when we speak or think about realities outside our immediate human experience, we have no choice. We can only speak or think about them in a human way.

Allow me to use a down-to-earth comparison to explain what I mean.

Seeing God through human eyes

Have you ever tried seeing yourself through your dog’s eyes? As your best friend it can share your moods and a measure of your life. But there is much it will never grasp. How will it understand your preference for Labour or the Tories? Or the meaning of your child’s first birthday? Or why you enjoy watching Coronation Street on television? Dogs think in categories such as play, meat, territory, who- is-boss? and going for a walk.

We are somewhat in the same boat when trying to understand God. Obviously we live on a higher plane than dogs do, but in other ways the comparison holds good. If God exists, he/she/it towers infinitely above and beyond us and we can only make sense of God by using our limited human ways of thinking.

The human image we have of God also shows up in more subtle forms. Many people who reject God do not really reject the transcending reality of God, but a distorted image of God.


There is the Super-Manager God of some evangelicals and charismatics. He is the God you turn to in all emergencies. What is your problem? Your wife has got cancer? You are preparing for an important job interview? You are wondering whether you will beat the traffic and make a crucial meeting in time? Don’t worry! Talk to God. He will fix it! If you are his friend, he will sort things out. He will even give you rain from a blue sky!

For some `cultural’ Christians who have for all practical purposes stopped going to Church, God is a vague Father Christmas figure. He wears a long, white beard and watches everything on earth from his throne in heaven. He is kind, but pathetic, the heavenly counterpart of his stereotype minister on earth: the rambling, bumbling, effeminate and useless parish vicar as often portrayed on TV (see: P.HANLEY, Finding Faith Today, London 1992, pp. 75-78).

And what about the Tyrant God who makes life so miserable for a number of people? They imagine him as a difficult-to-please Disciplinarian, the all-seeing Eye, the strict Master who expects perfection from everyone. He sends suffering, they think, to test us. He demands severe penances for the smallest transgressions. He is opposed to sex and pleasure and enjoyment. He is only mollified when he sees we abjectly confess our sins.

The litany could go on. Who can blame sensible persons for rejecting such gods, gods who bear no resemblance to what we can know about the real God?

On the other hand, limitations in our concept of God do not disprove God’s Truth. Our being acutely aware of the humanness of religious thinking and practice can only be an advantage to us. It will help us focus all the more on the underlying Reality all religions worship.


The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.

View the following film on the meaning of religion