Images of God: The Peacock's Tail Feathers
by Ellyn Sanna

Sometimes, I confess, God seems far too intangible and abstract to be of much practical use to me in a world where friends die, politics terrify, wars threaten. This God-concept is one I like to play with intellectually; the notion intrigues me, and theology fascinates me. But are my ideas about God “real”—or merely imaginary? When I was a child, my world teemed with invisible friends, and God was as real as any of them. At some point, though, as I grew older, I began to doubt this loving God whom I touched only with the fingers of my imagination. Obviously, make-believe isn’t real. It would be comforting to believe in a loving power overseeing everything, promising us all an Eternity of love—but it would be nice to believe in Narnia and elves and magic too.

One of the things that has attracted me to Celtic spirituality over the years is the way in which it not only makes room for the imagination but also takes it seriously, elevating it to a form a of perception that’s as “grown-up” as any of our other intellection abilities. It’s a way to reach beyond our limitations and get a glimpse of a larger Mystery that lies beyond our ability to pin it down, define it, and make it “literal.” “For the Celts,” Ken McIntosh writes in Reading the Bible the Celtic Way: The Peacock’s Tail Feathers, “God is ultimately a mystery; there will always be Divine secrets beyond human kenning. At a certain point, physical realities serve only as a portal to the infinite. The only way to pass that entryway is to travel by imagination.”

At first glance, this statement might irk the sensible agnostic who lives in most of our heads. We don’t want to venture out into “woo-woo land”—nor allow our faith to push us into dangerous territories. Fundamentalist religion, however, as well as a lot of New-Age ideas, aren’t really about using the imagination. Instead, they confuse the imaginary with the factual; they misinterpret symbols as literal truths.

C.S. Lewis, another Celtic theologian I turn to again and again, wrote, “The picture is a symbol: but it’s truer than any philosophical theorem (or, perhaps, than any mystic’s vision) that claims to go behind it.” Along the same lines, Lewis’s colleague and fellow author, Dorothy Sayers, said, “To forbid the making of pictures about God would be to forbid thinking about God at all, for man is so made that he has no way to think except in pictures.” The mystics have always reminded us, though, that God cannot be contained by any of our imaginary pictures. The via negativa, the way of emptiness and darkness that turns away from all pictures of God and seeks the Divine without words or images, is always the balance to the dangers of taking our imagination too seriously. The Hebrew scriptures also warned against confining God to a visual shape: “On the day when the Lord spoke to you out of the fire on Horeb, you saw no figure of any kind” (Dt 4:15 neb). In other words, don’t try to draw God’s outline; don’t limit the Divine by creating something that can be seen and touched. “If an icon [a picture of God] becomes more important to us than what it reveals of God,” Madeline L’Engle wrote, “then it becomes a golden calf.”

Mystery can’t be pinned down. Even Christ—the ultimate picture of God—told his disciples in the Gospel of John, “It is for your own good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you. . . .[and] teach you all things.” The Spirit is not confined to a single human body, even Christ’s, and the Divine teaches us through all things, including our imaginations.

As Ken McIntosh makes clear in Reading the Bible the Celtic Way, the Celts understood that we use our imaginations not to see something other than the “real” world, the physical world our senses perceive, but to see into this world, perceiving deeper meanings, glimpsing greater mysteries. To use Ken's metaphor, the Word of God is a constantly unfurling peacock's tail, endlessly shifting and shining, never contained to one thing, one place. 

In the end, I think maybe my old friend C.S Lewis puts it best: “This is the veil under which I have chosen to appear even from the first until now. For this end I made your senses and for this end your imagination, that you might see my face and live.”

Ellyn Sanna is Executive Editor of Anamchara Books and author of numerous books on spirituality including All Shall Be Well: A Modern-Language Version of the Revelation of Julian of Norwich