Not a Tame Lion

Mette Ivie Harrison is a regular guest here at BCC and author of many books, including The Book of Laman.

I remember years ago a religious friend of mine talked to me about her view of God. She told me that she didn’t see why God couldn’t be a woman, or a bird, or a tree. She felt God in all of those different things, because to her, God had many different aspects. For her, feeling God in every part of the world was part of her practice of worship. It enabled her to widen her spirituality. It let her find the divine in herself, as well.

At the time, I thought that was kind of hippy-dippy and just plain wrong. I actually made that judgment in my head because I felt that as a Mormon, I was very clear on who God was and wasn’t. God was a white man with a beard who looked like he did in the temple film or in other paintings I’d seen of God. God was a physical being, not a bird or a tree. He was a man, and that was all there was to it. To have the wrong idea of God was to not understand anything about the “true gospel” and meant that basically anything else you told me about your religion or your worship practice was built on a false foundation.

How times have changed. I’m sure that many, many more orthodox Mormons think this exact same thing about me and my current views of God and of spirituality. Though I don’t force my ideas on others at church, I write about them and I’ve found it extremely helpful to think of different aspects of God. Maybe I still don’t see God as a bird or a tree, but I do sometimes think of Christ speaking to me rather than God the Father. And sometimes I sit on a swing with Heavenly Mother or the Goddess, the feminine aspect of God.

Now, when I hear other people talk about their experiences with God, I think about the many names of God in the scriptures, counselor, wonderful, lord, peace, almighty, father, brother, everlasting, wisdom. God appears to us in many aspects. We find God in the natural world, in other people, and sometimes in ourselves. It’s very common in Mormonism and in Christianity to insist that our God is different than the God of the Muslim world or the Hindu gods or the wisdom of Buddha, but what if all these gods are just aspects of and names for one God, for our experiences with that which is beyond our world, beyond our capacity to understand?

The more I open myself up to different ways of conceiving of God, the more I feel like God opens up to me. Instead of putting him in a box and forcing him to stay within the limited ideas of a Mormon God, the more often I find myself having deep, spiritual experiences in my daily prayer. I’m reminded of the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, in which he says, “Aslan is not a tame lion.” He’s a wild lion. Susan expresses concern about meeting him and says “is he quite safe?” to which Mr. Beaver says “Who said anything about safe? Of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.” Wanting to contain our experience with God into one idea is a way to make him safe, but it’s also a way to cut ourselves off from truer, deeper, and more terrifying experiences with the divine.

In the last few months, I’ve had a couple of really scary experiences in prayer. One was a call to love myself more completely, to stop asking God constantly to help me “fix” this or that part of myself, and to find a way to see all parts of me as inherently lovable. I backed away from this message and ended the prayer immediately. I keep coming back to it in prayer and have realized since then that this radical message of unconditional love is something that I think Mormonism also often rejects. Though we talk about grace, we always insist that it goes along with “works” and that we can’t be saved until “after all we can do.” There’s no free ride to God’s love or salvation in Mormonism.

But what if there is? How would that upset the cart? For me, I’ve come to understand that I can’t follow the great command of Christ, to love everyone completely, friends, family, even my enemies, until I learn how to love myself. If I’m always pushing away parts of myself and wishing I wasn’t this way or that way, I can’t love anyone else fully either. I’ll be pushing away parts of them and telling them they’re not acceptable as they are. And is that really love? I don’t think it’s God’s love.

Another terrifying experience I’ve had in prayer is the command to find more of the divine in myself, to stop thinking of it as outside of me. As a Mormon woman who has always been told to think of God and his priesthood as male, this is terrifying. What would a mother God look like? What parts of myself are mirrored in this mother God? It’s easier to sit on the sidelines and let other people do the “God” stuff, including telling me what God is like, than it is to do the scary work of uncovering God in myself, and then telling other people about this. It sounds arrogant and unwomanly, somehow, and it is definitely going to get me into trouble sooner or later in my faith community. But this is the call. It’s a roar, not from a tame lion who can be shown in one image or one voice, but an immense and endless fall or rise into something else from which we may never return again the same.

Comments

  1. Mette, I’m grateful that you’ve shared these brave insights. A tangential thought I’ve had of late is that God is much more willing to embrace our bugs as features, and takes great joy in immersing himself in the consecration of these bugs.

  2. I am grateful for this. God as bigger and wilder than the white-haired grandfather figure is a familiar thought. So there’s the pleasure of confirmation. Finding an aspect of the divine within myself is food for thought. So there’s the pleasure of learning.

  3. I like the perspective of not putting God in a box. When we read that we are created in the image of God, the automatic assumption is that we must look look similar. However, the Old Testament portrays that image as a burning bush or a pillar of fire.

    However, I have to disagree when you say that “there’s no free ride to God’s love”. My understanding is that God’s love is not restricted, but our ability to perceive it is is restricted. Perhaps this is what you are saying.

  4. While I still will categorize thinking that the tree next to me is God as “hippy dippy”, I think your approach of thinking about the individual divine beings as individuals is good, and certainly not outside of doctrinal teachings. I suspect that the reason why the church doesn’t teach it more is that there’s a “trap” of creating a favorite in your mind and not wanting to build a relationship with the others.
    We’re the most polytheistic monotheistic religion, but we’re also the most monotheistic polytheistic religion.

  5. “Nor should you swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black.” I’ve often read this with the same voice and tone a parent might use with a child saying “You can’t even tie your own shoes.” The implication being of course that the parent CAN tie their shoes, or in this case CAN make their hair white/black/purple/etc. I think if God wants to change his hair color/length/style, it is a simple matter of desire and it is done.

    Same with His physical appearance. Wants darker skin tone? done. Wants it lighter? done. Wants to be taller? done. Less facial hair, more girth, longer fingernails, a hole in his side, marks in His palms/wrists/feet? Done. I think He can appear as He wishes to appear. That it isn’t just the atoms of the planets (the wind and the waves) that obey Him, but the atoms of His body as well. I’m not concerned at all about nailing down what He looks like, because I think He can alter it at will. That type of change is beyond us, but are we justified in thinking it is beyond Him?

  6. I celebrate your personal evolution in all that is God and your relationship with the Godhead! Mine is continual evolving as well, thanks to articles such as yours. Thank you. I like to think that members of the church, Mormonism, Mormons, how every you want to refer to the church as a whole is as different and evolving as well. When grouped together as thinking a certain way in the negative sense isn’t fair. Maybe it depends on where you grow up, or your particular experiences but the church to you is not the same as it is to me.

  7. My first step toward an expansive God comes from fiction as well – though not a directly Christian work like Narnia. It was when I first read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. There’s an issue that’s about cats, and in that one, Dream appears in the form of a cat. The basic idea being that of course a cat wouldn’t see the personification of dreams as a human – it’d see him as a cat. It’s an odd example, but for some reason that made something click for me. Like, why wouldn’t God appear as a cat to a cat as well? Maybe we’re all in God’s image because God can just as easily be in our image.

    The broader, more elastic idea of God makes a lot more sense to me these days. There’s something right about the idea that either God takes many forms, or God has a form that’s far enough beyond comprehension that our brains compose it into something more familiar when we encounter it.

    Of course, I don’t know how you square that with the Mormon conception of God as having one human body (albeit perfected). And wouldn’t a god who can take any form invalidate the idea of the Holy Ghost as a separate entity who chooses not to have a body in order to function as it does? Why would you need that if God can appear as anything or in anything?

  8. I don’t really think there is a Mormon God, just Mormons who can’t see. He was a burning bush for Moses and we are taught that Christ is in everything He created and that His power animates all life and light. Luckily for me I never thought Mormon women don’t have power, sometimes I wonder if the reason I have trouble relating to ideas that younger women and men write about the gospel and ideas they struggle with is because I grew up and was educated before correlation took it’s full effect.

  9. “It’s easier to sit on the sidelines and let other people do the ‘God’ stuff, including telling me what God is like, than it is to do the scary work of uncovering God in myself, and then telling other people about this.” – Agree

    “It sounds arrogant and unwomanly, somehow” – Disagree :)

    “it is definitely going to get me into trouble sooner or later in my faith community.” – Hope not!