Chapter 7
The Image of God

What does it mean to say that someone 'became a Christian'? The word 'Christian' is so loosely used that it can mean anything from a kind and loving sort of person who believes nothing to a bigoted fanatic who believes in the literal truth of the Bible, so that when Psalm 114 says that 'the hills skipped like young rams', it means that those same hills took off by the roots and bounded physically about the Sinai desert. Less extreme and more usual in ecclesiastic circles, being 'a Christian' means that the person claiming to be a Christian at some point in his or her life 'accepted Jesus Christ as his or her personal Lord and Saviour'. That is a statement which itself needs defining but, however it may be defined, I certainly did not move from atheism to belief in God by way of any such sudden acceptance; for me the significance of Jesus came later, and for some people that admission will be taken as a proof that I did not become a Christian at all at that time. The order of events was different for me. As time passed and I ceased to mourn the death of my atheism, there came a point, as I have already said, not when I accepted Jesus as an intimate factor in my life but when I found that I believed that God existed. Comparing notes later with a friend who had become a Catholic after years of atheism, I said half in jest that I had believed in the Holy Ghost long before believing in either God the Father or Jesus Christ, whereupon she erupted in a spontaneous bubble of laughter and delighted agreement, for her own experience had been similar; a fact which greatly irritated the atheist friend with whom we were staying at the time, who thought us both totally mad. But although my comment was a joke, to those who say that no one can be a true Christian who has not consciously come to belief through Christ I would suggest that this may be to ignore the role of the Spirit.

However, if what happened to me at that time did not make me a Christian, then it must have made me a jubilant, if breathless and astonished, pagan; for once I had got accustomed to the decision which I woke up one morning to find planted in my head, namely that there was a
God - a decision which seemed to me to accord with reason though also to transcend it - I found myself filled with 'the type of thought' described by Professor Jean-Pierre Vernant in his book, Myth and Society in Ancient Greece (1980):

'The religion of the ancient Greeks and their pantheon of gods can be seen to be a system of classification, a particular way of conceptualizing the universe, distinguishing between multiple types of force and power operating within it. So in this sense I would suggest that a pantheon, as an organized system implying definite relations between the various gods, is a kind of language, a particular way of apprehending reality and expressing it in symbolic terms. I am even inclined to believe that in those ancient times there existed between language and religion a sort of co-naturality. When one considers religion as a type of thought, it appears to date back as far as language itself. What characterizes the human level as opposed to that of other creatures on the animal scale is the presence of these vast mediatory
systems - language, tools and religion. However, man is not aware of having invented this language of religion. He feels that it is the world itself that speaks this language or, to be more precise, that fundamental reality itself is a language. The universe appears to him as the expression of sacred powers which, in their own particular different forms, constitute the true texture of reality, the meaning that lies behind the symbols that manifest it.' (The italics are mine)

Apart from the fact that I should have classed the arts, rather than tools, or perhaps as well as tools, as one of man's 'vast mediatory systems', through which he apprehended reality in ancient times and indeed apprehends it today, that statement sums up better than I can do myself how I felt after I had given my atheism a decent burial and ceased to wear mourning clothes to mark its passing. The universe in which I found myself living was like a vast and miraculous work of art, shot through and through with transcendent order and harmony, and the world a place transparent to a mystery of being and creative power in which it seemed that 'the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy'.

I am not convinced that all this necessarily made me a pagan rather than a Christian, for I am not convinced that Christian conversion must necessarily be as narrowly defined as some Christians would like; but if they are right, and I did in fact become a pagan at that time, I remain one, for the universe still has the same effect on me, and I am glad it does so. Statements like that in the celebrated hymn which speaks of 'the heathen in his blindness (who) bows down to wood and stone' seem to me to be proof of the writer's obtuseness, arrogance, and hopeless misunderstanding of the place of works of art in the practice of religion. Deutero-Isaiah was a great prophet, but he was a very bad art critic when he inveighed against the sculptor who chooses a bit of wood for a carving, 'Then it shall be for man to burn, and he taketh thereof, and warmeth himself yea, he kindleth it, and baketh bread; yea, he maketh a god and worshippeth it; he maketh a graven image, and falleth down thereto....and prayeth unto it, and saith, Deliver me, for though art my God.'

To be fair to Isaiah, he may have been so aware of the power of works or art to move the minds of men and women to contemplate the transcendent ideas they embody that he felt he had to mock them vigorously; but it is as absurd to suppose that the votaries of the gods he so much disliked actually worshipped the bits of wood or stone which represented them as to think that Orthodox Christians worship their icons. Orthodox Christians worship the powers embodied, expressed and represented in, through and beyond the images of them in their icons, and the 'heathen' of Isaiah's day doubtless did the same. Endowed with their own perception of reality, the pagans of the ancient world had a vision of the universe around them which I am glad to be able, in some measure, to share; and whatever some of their practices may have been, I do not believe that in essence their vision is incompatible with Christianity. Indeed, if Christ was the fulfilment of the old Jewish Law, I believe that there is a real sense in which he was also the fulfilment of the religions of the ancient world; memories of Attis, Adonis and Osiris inevitably stir in a literate mind when reading some parts of the New Testament, and this should not surprise or dismay anyone. On the contrary, it serves to
underline the universality of Christ, and should be welcomed. Far from being incompatible with the pagan vision of the world at its best and most radiant, Christ made luminous sense of it; at least he did so for me; for if the universe is like some transcendent work of art, the central claim made on behalf of the man Jesus is that he is the icon of God; that is to say, the
image or physical object in, through, and beyond which men are challenged to see the transcendent God made present. By any definition, that makes him God's supreme work of art, the image which earthed divinity into humanity and the world, and gave the clue to the nature of the rest of his creation; and this, needless to say, I found immensely exciting and wholly acceptable.

But plainly it poses problems. It is one thing to believe in a God who/which is not merely another being, somewhat like ourselves only large and supernatural, but rather the spiritual reality underlying all things, which is how God is defined in a recent book by Professor Keith Ward of King's College, London, himself an ex-atheist - a definition of the indefinable that is as acceptable as any theological proposition is ever likely to be. But it is altogether another thing to go on to say that this infinite underlying spiritual reality somehow became a man at a particular time and place in history. How can the former concept of God be reconciled to the idea of God as a person? How can a statement by the man Jesus like, 'God is a spirit and those that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth,' be married to such different commands as, 'When ye pray, say, Abba, father', especially when it is recalled that the word 'Abba' was the diminutive for 'father', rather like Papa? It is not a new problem, St Paul knew that the idea of an incarnate God, whom men could crucify, was 'foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews'; that is to say, idiocy to intellectuals and near blasphemy to the convinced monotheists; but the fact that it is an age-old problem, which exercised the best minds of the Greek world from St Paul's day right through the patristic age, is no excuse for not looking at it again on the grounds that it has been resolved once and for all in the great Christological formularies of the Church, or conversely on the grounds that it is such a deep mystery that it is useless to delve into it.

It is indeed a mystery and the participants in the great Christological debates of the early Church may well have plumbed it as deeply as anyone ever will; but they thought in different categories from those in which we and our contemporaries think, and the conclusions to which they came are almost wholly unintelligible today to all but a handful of theologians, and this is a far from satisfactory situation. For if the idea of an incarnate God was foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews of St Paul's day, the apparently unintelligible statements in the Christian formularies and creeds which church-goers are required to say
can be very serious stumbling blocks to some of the most honest of them, to whom intellectual integrity is important, and baffling nonsense to many highly intelligent non-church-goers, who realize nevertheless how much they are missing by living without any religious faith. Therefore we must try to understand the problem all over again in terms which are less strange to our contemporaries if we wish them to take the claims made for Christ seriously. I feel very strongly that someone must have the courage to do this, for I know what it feels like to look with longing and yet with angry bafflement at the apparently hopeless unintelligibility of the Church's proclamation of its faith in Christ; and although I realize how rash I am to say any such thing. I believe that we may be in a better position to reassess the problem in the latter half of the twentieth century than our forefathers were.

For the problem is basically that of the relationship of an image to the reality imaged; that is to say, how can the particular historical man, Jesus of Nazareth, possibly relate to the spiritual reality underlying all things, which is what God must be if he/it exists at all? And we are the first generation of human beings to live in a world which knows through the work of the sub-atomic physicists that we perceive it and everything in it in images; the first
generation to know for sure that what we hear, taste, see and touch are largely creations of our own minds, a rich tissue of images of the very different reality of the sub-atomic world of electrons and protons and the rest which constitute the physical reality underlying all things.
It may seen an absurdly simplistic question, but if reality differs so much from our image of it in the realm of science and everyday experience, why should not the reality and image of God be as different in the realm of religious definition and experience? The fact is that images are the primary stuff of our apprehension; they are fundamental, both to our perception of the world and to the possibility of our understanding it. They are both the raw material upon which our intellects work analytically and the links which connect us to the underlying reality of the world; and this is true in science, the arts and religion. Moreover, the image is not to be despised as 'a mere image', as though it were inferior to the reality it images, nor written off as basically inessential to that reality; for, to borrow an analogy from the arts, it would be the height of folly to say, “How marvellous Rembrandt's portrait of his son Titus is! What a painting! It is a profound statement of the loveliness, vulnerability and preciousness of the boy, but do burn the picture; it is quite inessential to the vision it embodies and expresses.'
What Rembrandt had to say about his son is expressed and embodied in the material object of canvas and dried paint which constitutes the picture, and can no more be divorced from it than the sub-atomic reality of the paving stones upon which I walk can be divorced from the hard surface which saves me from falling head over heels when I go shopping. So that, even if God is eternally greater than his images, as Christians have always believed, and as Christ himself repeatedly emphasized - 'The Father is greater than me,' 'Why callest thou me good? None but God alone is good' - the fact that his image in Christ is apparently very different from his reality-in-himself should constitute no insuperable barrier to believing in Christ as the icon of God; that is to say, as the physical object in, through, and beyond which men are challenged to see the transcendent God made present. One could perhaps sum up the problem of understanding God by saying that, while the idea of God as the spiritual reality underlying all things is unimaginable but by no means unintelligible, Christ as the image of God is, in the nature of the thing, imaginable but difficult, if not impossible, adequately to define, analyse or understand intellectually. So, however, is the significance of a late Beethoven quartet. In both the mystery remains a mystery, and yet in both the mystery is revealed.

I suspect, however, that as far as images are concerned most people do not think first of Jesus as the image of God but as the son of God; it is the most powerful and on the surface the simplest of all the images applied to him. Indeed, I further suspect that many people do not think of the term 'son of God', as applied to Jesus, as an image at all but rather as a simple biological description of him; that is to say, they think of Jesus as the son of God in the same way as young Bill Smith is the son of his father, John Smith. Millions of people have thought of him in this way down the centuries without being bothered by doubts, and some accept the idea today with the same ease; but others do not. For them, once you proclaim that the image of Jesus as the 'son of God' is not an image but a biological fact, credulity is stretched to breaking point, and they feel forced to reject the Christian faith. Some people would argue that they should learn to accept it, as their forefathers did, or go without. But it is not as easy as that, for their forefathers in New Testament times had very different ideas about biological origination from those of today, and if you apply modern biological knowledge to the term 'son of God' you make theological nonsense of the doctrine of Christ. For if that term is to be understood in modern biological terms, then Jesus must have been half God and half man, a hybrid; and this has never been either Christian belief or Christian teaching, which proclaims him to be wholly God and wholly man God made man. This is precisely what the earliest Christians would have understood by the term 'son of God', for the Jewish contemporaries of Jesus believed that the male semen, injected into the female during the course of copulation, actually grew into the child in the mother's womb, her only part in the whole affair being to provide the growing child with a tent of flesh in which this could happen. In other words, children originated in the creative organs of the father and were the result of the father's will and action alone. Thus the story of the virgin birth in St Luke's Gospel and in St Matthew's would have been taken to mean that the child Jesus was the result of an initiative taken by God and made possible by the passive role of Mary, the result being, not a cross physically between God and man, but God made flesh, God incarnate, true God made true man; or as St Paul put it, 'God was in Christ'.

Biologically, this may make little or no sense today; but in terms of image and reality it seems to me to make pellucid sense. For the statement that Jesus was 'the image of God' is not very different from Paul's statement to the Colossians that 'in him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily'; and that in its turn is not so different from St Augustine's statement that 'Verbum....ars quaedam omnipotens atquer sapientis Dei', 'the Word....is, in a way, the art of the almighty and wise God'.

The idea of Christ as God's supreme work of art, his own self-portrait, was an analogy which explained many things to me about Christ which otherwise eluded my understanding altogether, and it excited me greatly, 'Art', said Herbert Read in Art and Society (1937) 'is a mode of expression, a language.....In all its essential activities art is trying to tell us something'; and the notion of Jesus as God's mode of self-expression, in and through whom he was speaking and trying to tell people something about himself, let alone doing something for the world, lit up the gospel for me in a way that nothing else had or, I suspect, could have done. Moreover, it made sense of other aspects of it; for instance, one of the things that seems to have worried the earliest Christians was the fact that very few people noticed that 'God was in Christ' during his lifetime. Why were his contemporaries so blind? In St Mark's gospel it is said that they were blinded by God, as Isaiah had prophesied that they would be, 'That seeing they may see and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand, lest haply they should turn again, and it should be forgiven them.' This implies that Jesus went around purposely baffling his hearers, because God did not want them to understand what he was saying to them; but this paints such an extraordinary picture both of God and of Jesus, trying to frustrate their own express purposes of salvation, that it is difficult to accept. It seems far more likely that Mark, or the man from whom Mark gathered his information, plagued by the question as to why people had been so blind to the true significance of Jesus, if he had indeed been the son of God, lit upon a passage in Isaiah which seemed to solve the problem: God had blinded them to the truth.

But there are simpler explanations of the blindness of Jesus's contemporaries. I do not want to push the analogy between Jesus and a work of art too far - and, of course, I know that it is no more than an analogy - but if there is any truth in it at all, then the blindness of his contemporaries is perhaps not very surprising; for the greater and more original a work of art and its imagery may be, just as the greater and more original a radically new idea in science may be, the more likely it is to be greeted at first with hostility and misunderstanding.
'Let those with ears to hear, hear', was a saying applied to the parables of Jesus, but it could have been addressed with equal pertinence to the contemporaries of those legions of great
artists and musicians down the ages whose works have been greeted with ridicule and blindness during their lifetime, only to be valued and understood after their creators' deaths.

But there is another and even simpler reason why the contemporaries of Jesus found it so difficult to see in him anything more than an ordinary man; he was an ordinary man. The Jews had very clear ideas about what the long-awaited Messiah would be like, when at last he came to usher in the kingdom of God and confound the enemies of his chosen people; and the last thing they expected was an ordinary man. They expected a supernatural being, all-powerful and intent upon vindicating his elect by divine force, while burning their Gentile oppressors like chaff, and Jesus did not fit that bill. It is a point well taken by Professor John Bowker, the Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge, in is book The Religious Imagination and the Sense of God (1978); speaking of St Paul's time he has pointed out that 'there were many prophets, many workers of miracles, many gods, many religions in the world in which Paul lived; there were myths of dying and rising gods, mysteries which opened, or claimed to open, a way through death. But Jesus was open to prosaic observation. He was tangled up in the human situation.'

The human ordinariness of Jesus is emphasized equally strongly in the New Testament itself, where the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews says that Jesus was 'in all things like unto his brethren'; that is to say, subject to death and indignity and unequivocally human; and St John reminds his readers that 'That which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes, that which we have beheld, and our hands have handled....we declare to you.' This human ordinariness of Jesus forms the background to the story of Peter's confession of faith, when in reply to Jesus's question, 'Who do you say that I am?' he said, 'Thou art the Christ', whereupon Jesus's immediate response was 'Blessed art thou, Simon bar Jonah! Flesh and blood hath not revealed this to thee, but my father in heaven.' In addition to emphasizing the ordinariness of Jesus, this story makes the further point that the truth is revealed to Peter; it is not the result of his own human achievement. Peter falls through Koestler's trap-door, and is shown by God - the spiritual reality behind all things - the underlying truth of Jesus the man. His eyes are opened to the truth. it is a flash in the pan, however, as his next remarks demonstrate, and it is only after he and the other disciples have been shown the truth behind the ordinary death of Jesus, namely that it is the gate to life, that he ceases to be Simon bar Jonah and becomes Peter the God-born rock.

But if the reason for Jesus's contemporaries' blindness to his true significance was due partly to their understandable failure to penetrate the ordinariness of his humanity and partly to the same sort of blindness as has so often been shown by people throughout history to works of art, it is perhaps worth noticing here that one of the characteristics of such works is precisely their apparent ordinariness; though perhaps simplicity might be a better description, for often it is this astonishing simplicity which differentiates great works of art from merely good ones.

In the Louvre there is a picture by Simone Martini of Christ carrying his cross which illustrates the point I am trying to make, though I could have chosen hundreds of others to perform the same service; it is ten inches by four inches of painted board in more or less bright colours; the draughtsmanship is not much better or more worse than that of other early fourteenth-century works, the composition no more remarkable than that of similar paintings of the time, and yet it is almost literally a small miracle of grace and truth to those with eyes to see. A Rembrandt brush-drawing in the British Museum of a girl sleeping is almost more remarkable because it is monochrome and must have been done in less than five minutes; it makes you want to say, 'Anyone could have done that!' and in the same breath, 'What a miracle!'

In view of all this, it is perhaps not surprising that so few people who came face to face with Jesus in his lifetime were impressed, for he was too simple, too ordinary, for them; they were looking for the wrong kind of miracle and the wrong kind of Messiah. That this was so was made plain enough when Jesus chided them with the words, 'Unless ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe...it is an evil and adulterous generation that seeketh after a sign.' But, of course, the contemporaries of Jesus were not the only people who have looked for signs and wonders of the wrong kind; every generation is liable to do so, not excluding our own, which runs after the leaders of ecstatic sects, divine healers, hypnotic Indian gurus and charismatic miracle workers in the suburbs of California and elsewhere. But precisely because Jesus was both an ordinary man and also the image of God, the place where Christians should seek the truth and vision of God is primarily in and through the ordinary; for the revelation of transcendent splendour in and through the ordinary is the heart of true miracle:

.....................a world in a grain of sand,
And heaven in a wild flower
............................. infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
It is a vision of your neighbour as an image of the mystery of God, and the great nebula in Andromeda as 'the work of thy fingers'; and Christ as both son of man and Icon of God.

Even if only some small part of this is true, it seems to me that there is no need to look much further for what unites art, science and religious faith; for the world's artists have always sought to see the underlying order, truth and harmony of things, and so have the scientists.
It was when I reached this point in my fumbling search for a new set of ideas with which to furnish my head, left empty, dusty and uninhabited since I had thrown away its atheist fittings, that I began to realize that if the 'earth and common face of nature' had spoken rememberable things to Wordsworth, the ordinary man and common face of Christ were speaking even more rememberable things to me; and one of those things concerned me and my own nature. For if the Christian faith sees in Jesus the clue to the nature of God, it also sees in him the clue to the true nature of human beings as they can and should be.

'He came unto his own,' said St John in the prologue to his Gospel, ' and they that were his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God'; and later in his First Epistle, he goes further and says firmly, 'Beloved, now are we the sons of God.....' Paul said much the same to the Christians in Rome, namely that 'as many as are led by the spirit of God, they are the sons of God'; and he encouraged those in Philippi not to bicker amongst themselves, 'that ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God. This central belief about humanity's true destiny and nature did not change, for a hundred years later Irenaeus, who was bishop of Lyons in the middle of the second century, insisted that God became man in order that men might attain their true destiny and become sons of God.

This was a new kind of anthropology for me; wherever I looked at the Christian doctrine of man, I found the same emphasis upon possibility, opportunity and becoming, and it made sense. Human beings, it seemed, were neutral things, potentially either demonic or godlike, battle-grounds upon which conflicting forces were at war, and the issue of the war was one of life or death. Having watched the rise of Nazism in Germany, during which the world witnessed something very like the demon possession of one of the most civilized peoples on earth, I had no difficulty in accepting that side of the Christian analysis of the human condition. It made sense, too, of my own nature and inner conflicts. But above all, on the positive side, the doctrine of man as an image and child of God went a long way to answering the question posed by my corpses. I was no longer forced to betray my own deepest human awareness of consigning that Jewish woman, murdered on the road to Kiev, to the rubbish heap of time past as a biological accident of a senseless universe. Meanwhile, on the positive side, it made sense, too, of those whom I loved and of the preciousness of people as images of a mystery greater than themselves, and sense finally of the artist's vision of the ordinary world as a monstrance of great splendour. in fact, things began to hang together in a web of meaning and mystery, sense and disclosure, art and faith, and although I was still very frightened by the thought of becoming a Christian, I knew that I was being carried along on a tide of ideas and perception which I was quite unable to control or resists; and God alone knew where it was taking me.


Antony Cyprian Bridge