BOOK BLOG | The Image of God (Sayers - Letter 4)
“The characteristic common to God and man is apparently…the desire and ability to make things.”
The fourth essay in Dorothy Sayers’ collection Letters to a Diminished Church weaves together the themes of creation, thought, language, embodiment, and image.
We begin with the Judeo-Christian God (in the sense of God the Father), a photo-shy fellow who, while he is a person, and usually identifies as masculine, does not inhabit a body. This makes him very hard to visualize. To prevent the confusion and idolatry likely to be triggered by any sort of visual depiction, this non-embodied God issued a general prohibition against trying to put him into a body (i.e. “graven images”).
Except that man is embodied, and therefore is simply not capable of genuinely abstract thinking apart from the sort of concrete/empirical data taken in through sensory experience. Indeed, the very act of apprehension means to form an “image” in one’s mind and to assign it to a particular artifact of language. We are, by nature, visual thinkers. This picture may be formed by direct experience of the thing, or through language, where we get the benefit of someone else’s direct experience.
But language itself is analogical. “We can explain nothing in terms of itself, but only in terms of other things. […] In particular, when we speak about something of which we have no direct experience, we must think by analogy or refrain from thought.” If, therefore, thinking by analogy is the only sort of thinking there is, then the charge – generally made by religious skeptics – that God is merely an anthropomorphism, is tautological (that is, so self-evident as to be a virtually valueless observation). “To complain that man measures God by his own experience is a waste of time; man measures everything by his own experience; he has no other yard stick.”
Sayers captures this through – you guessed it – a metaphor.
“If the tendency to anthropomorphism is a good reason for refusing to think about God, it is an equally good reason for refusing to think about light, or oysters, or battleships. It may quite well be perilous, as it must be inadequate, to interpret the mind of our pet by analogy with ourselves; we can by no means enter directly into the nature of a dog; behind the appealing eyes and the wagging tail lies a mystery as inscrutable as the mystery of the Trinity. But that does not prevent us from ascribing to the dog feelings and ideas based on analogy with our own experience; and our behavior to the dog, controlled by this kind of experimental guesswork, produces practical results that are reasonably satisfactory.”
So how do we picture God? We see a lot of “king” imagery and Jesus was partial to using the “Our Father who art in heaven” motif. Yet, in the midst of all these metaphors folks seem to understand intuitively that the metaphors have limits. When we talk about God having dominion, few probably think that God is ruling over colonial territories. We grasp, Sayers thinks, that there are points of similarity, but also points of dissimilarity. And that seems to be largely the point: that language functions by drawing out commonality amongst things which otherwise have little commonality (this is explored with greater depth in the next essay).
Okay, so language is “an expression of experience and of the relation of one experience to the other.” But the next logical step is to note that the meaning of language itself “is realized only in experience”. This means that while one can receive a word picture about X through language, until I actually experience X for myself, I don't really comprehend X. True comprehension comes only through having a comparable experience yourself. This is that “until you’ve walked a mile in someone’s shoes” business your grandmother warned you about. Any man who has lost his father to the grave will know exactly what we’re saying here.
But back to God. The reality is that we can’t experience God directly. Even the prophets rarely got more than occasional voices, dreams heavy on the symbolism, or a passing glimpse of God’s backside. Not since Adam walked with God in the garden has any man had that sort of access. So how do we come to really know God if none of us can experience him directly? Answer: the best we can do is a metaphor.
Re-enter the creeds. Here is a place from which we may draw our metaphor. We are reminded that the first statement of the creed is “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things.” The very first metaphor which emerges is explicitly that of Maker (or Creator if you prefer). As people, we do certainly have direct experience making things. Granted, we do not create ex nihilo ("out of nothing") so it is more re-creation and re-making things – but still, we know what it is to labor to build, or manufacture, or paint, or write something of significance. However diminished the resulting metaphor may be from Truth of God, it conveys something true about God nonetheless.
“Outside our own experience of procreation and creation, we can form no notion of how anything comes into being. The expressions ‘God the Father’ and ‘God the Creator’ are thus seen to belong to the same category – that is, of analogies based on human experience and limited or extended by a similar mental process in either case."
Of all the sorts of “makers” we might imagine, Sayers thinks the artistic creator (the painter, the composer, the sculptor, the novelist) probably comes closest to God, metaphorically speaking. That is, the act of creating a piece of art which comes “out of the head” of the artist/writer is as close to making something from nothing that a man ever gets. It’s one of those moments where man most closely emulates the nature and character of God. In that moment, we actually do experience something of the Divine, if only indirectly, and that imbues the metaphor with enormous linguistic and explanatory power.