Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer. This old saw was amply vindicated by the question scientists in North Carolina posed to a sample group of US Christians.
Their answers to the question in the title were used to create a composite ‘e-fit’ picture of God’s face.
Turns out God isn’t at all like he’s usually depicted, a muscular old chap whose shaggy beard neatly matches the cloud he sits on. God, according to those Christians, was an effeminate lad with vaguely black features.
How effeminate and how black depended on the respondents’ own characteristics and also on their politics. In essence, they reversed the generally accepted roles by creating God in the image and likeness of themselves. Everybody was his own God.
This makes me want to ask a different question. Just how Christian is America anyway? Her piety is often held up as an example for all of us to follow, but is it actually true?
I’ve always had my doubts, ever since I lived there (1973-1988), first in Texas then in New York. Being new both to the West and to freedom of worship, I often discussed God with my co-workers.
In Texas, almost the whole staff were self-described Christians. One of them noticed that I looked the worse for wear one morning. Replying to his inquiry, I admitted that I had had a few too many the night before.
“How could you, Al?” asked my devout colleague. “Jesus didn’t drink, you know.”
I objected by offering a few scriptural references testifying to the opposite, from the wedding at Cana, to the Son of Man who drinketh, to the fruit of the vine that was imbibed at every paschal meal, such as the Last Supper.
“That was non-alcoholic wine,” explained the co-worker, aghast at my downfall. “How do you know that?” I wondered. “How can you ask this question, Al? Don’t y’all know what kind of guy Jesus was?”
I honestly admitted I probably didn’t, though he didn’t reciprocate by acknowledging a similar ignorance. However, the thought crossed my mind that he and many other believers I met in the Bible Belt had a tad primitive, not to say vulgar, notion of Christ.
My co-worker in New York was an atheist with strong ideas about the appearance of God in whom she didn’t believe.
That aggressive woman with breasts to match was unequivocal on the subject: “God is a woman and she’s black.” “So do you believe in her?” I wanted to know. “Of course I don’t,” she replied, undeterred by a touch of logical inconsistency there somewhere.
By then I had learned enough about America to know that most of her pious Christians, the Catholic and Episcopalian minorities apart, were sectarians. They belonged to some of the 30,000 sects sprouted by Protestantism over time.
Now, along with Hilaire Belloc, I regard even mainstream Protestantism as a heresy. That makes those American sects heresies of a heresy, with predictable consequences.
One such consequence is ignorant vulgarisation. Encouraged to interpret God as they see fit, those alternative Christians create multiple Gods, reflecting the diversity of human nature. They thereby get perilously close to paganism, replacing worship with idolatry.
Neither doctrine nor dogma means anything to those dubious Christians. They make up their own as they go along.
They do read the Bible, but in the absence of qualified teachers and interpreters they don’t understand what they read. And of course the First Amendment discourages teaching Christianity at state schools. Comparative religion is the best the tots get: Which do you prefer, Johnny, Christianity or Taoism? And have you considered totemism?
Hence we shouldn’t be surprised that the question those North Carolina researchers posed was illiterate. Anyone who can ask such a question, or agree to answer it, hasn’t a clue about Christianity or for that matter any other Abrahamic religion.
The question about God’s appearance presupposes the crude anthropomorphism of primitive creeds. What the inquirer sees in his mind is a demiurge like Zeus or Odin, not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The God Christians worship is outside time and space, which means he can’t have a physical shape. He is the creator and essence of being and existence, but he himself doesn’t exist, in the sense in which we understand the word. It’s because of God that everything else exists.
Since a lower system can’t fathom a higher one, we can’t approach God so closely as to attach any physical characteristics to him. The best we can hope for is a mystical, metaphysical vision, which isn’t a gift given to many.
However, the God worshipped by real Christians (as opposed to, say, Unitarians and Jehovah’s Witnesses) is Trinitarian, comprising three distinct hypostases, one of which lived as a man for some 33 years.
Because during that time Jesus was not only fully divine but also fully human, it would have been perfectly legitimate to ask those respondents to describe their idea of his appearance. There they could have unshackled their fancy because the Gospels left no physical descriptions of Jesus.
This is sometimes put forth as proof that he never existed (otherwise surely one of his disciples would have sketched his verbal portrait). Such beliefs show a poor grasp of human psychology, which can be demonstrated quite easily.
When you next go away from home for a few days, try to remember in detail the face of someone you love (say, your spouse) and someone you merely know well (say, your colleague). You’ll find the second task much easier.
Because our relationship with those we merely know is skin-deep, their outer shell is what we recall instantly. However, our relationship with someone we love goes to the soul of that person, beyond and deeper than the outer shell, which is then pushed into the farther recesses of memory.
The apostles loved Jesus more than life itself, which is why most of his features receded to the back of their minds. They remembered so little because they loved so much.
But Jesus did have a human face, and it can be depicted. However, even there one’s fecund imagination ought to be reined in by some basic knowledge.
Thus it’s yet another exercise in self-deification for the Chinese to portray Jesus with Mongoloid features, for the Scandinavians with Nordic ones or for the Africans with Negroid ones.
Considering where the Incarnation occurred and who his mother was, Jesus had to look Semitic, and his appearance had to reflect the local mores. For example, contrary to Caravaggio’s portrayal of him, he had to have a beard. But other than such details, one’s visual creativity needn’t be restrained in any way.
Had I been one of the respondents in the North Carolina exercise, I would have sketched God as Anubis, the Egyptian deity usually depicted as a man with a canine head. That would have done wonders for their composite image.