To some extent all the characters who populate the story we tell ourselves about our lives are creations of our own imagination. Our heads are full of fictional and semi-fictional plot lines, archetypes, stereotypes and patterns. We learn some, are probably born “knowing” others. The figure of “parent” (or perhaps “mother”) must surely be innate. Like baby birds but slightly less obviously baby humans must have the capacity to attach to an adult who will care for them.
As our children grow they form friendships that look to me like they come out of something very intrinsic to their nature. The figure of the “friend” is imprinted within each of us and those we meet who become our friends are, to some extent, fitted to this form. Similarly “lover”, “rival”, “boss”, “subordinate” and so look, to me like roles we are made to recognise and fill.
Carl Jung, the psycho-analytic thinker, created a complex and specultive theory of archetypes and the collective unconscious that personally I have never felt inclined to explore in any depth but I’m sure he was on to something. Our perceptions of other people are neither purely observational nor arbitrary. They are based on a set of pre-existing categories to which we adjust what we experience of those we encounter.
Our ideas about people we know well will, in some cases, begin to escape the internal limitations of the ready-made types we have put them in, but not always. Perhaps in some cases the strength of our feelings about those closest to us will be derived from the importance to us of the role they are being called on the play and this prevents us from really seeing the reality of the person concerned. The saying “love is blind” points towards this possibility. The very best relationships must be those where those involved are suitable to their parts and so can be seen as they are while staying, as it were, “in character”.
So what about God? It makes sense to me to think that our idea of God begins like those more or less arbitrary putting of an available person into a role demanded by our internal constitution, those friendships formed at new schools or in the first year of university that depend only on chance and need and which fall away as more compatible people are met. We hear about “God” and form from what’s available to us a character that meets our needs. This is a fictional character called “God” and for many opponents of religion this is all that God can ever be.
Those friendships of new situations either develop into something more substantial, where the people involved actually have things in common and interest and concern for one another, or they fall away to be replaced by different, more real, relationships. What about our relationship with the “God” we create out of our need? Can it develop into something else or must it be replaced? Perhaps science, psychology, humanistic ethics or rational social science are the new friends we make in our second year?
These considerations are a significant reason why I think the rooting of our faith in its deep history and especially in the Bible are so indispensable to Christianity. If the word “God” is to be anything other than a label for a projection of our desires then it has to be tested in the encounter with something beyond ourselves, with the reality of the person (this is Christianity after all) it is being used to name. This encounter takes place, can only take place, through time, in events, in history and in culture.
If we allow our idea of God to break free of the concrete life of the human race then it will become mere wish-fulfilment, however much we dress it up in the languages of rationality, ethics, aesthetics or anything else you may name.
It has always been clear that God, as the transcendent ground of reality (the creator of all things) and the sovereign legislator of all goodness (the giver of the Law) can’t be encountered in exactly the same way as we meet one another. God is not a “person” in the same way as we are. But the history and experience of our species is that we have to encounter God in a way analagous to that I which we meet one another. This is the special gift (revelation) of Christianity. We meet God through and in Jesus who is not a hybrid God-man but somehow (mysteriously and paradoxically) holds Godhood (divinity) and manhood (humanity) in a single person.
This, too, is an event in history and our idea of who and what God is has to be adjusted to it. We have to let our pre-formed ideas of God, shaped by our need, to change to allow God to be who God is. That’s hard, as it is to remain in love with someone who doesn’t simply conform to the “lover” we have imagined. But it’s what we have to do if we’re going to have a real and lasting relationship.