In one of his many wonderful lectures, Alan watts tells of the story of an astronaut who went deep into space and made it safely back to earth. Upon his return to earth, the astronaut was asked the question “Have you seen God?”. He replied emphatically, “Of course I have”. Being very intrigued, the people pressed further “What does God look like?”. To their utmost amazement he replied
The people were of course taken aback with feelings of amazement and slight disgust. Instead of “God the father”, but “God the mother”. And more importantly, instead of a paternal figure with white beard sitting on the throne, but a young athletic black woman. Such tectonic paradigm shift was not one they were expecting. Of course, the astronaut never saw God, but the anecdote seeks instead to challenge the centuries held stereotype of God.
Not surprisingly, the bible was quite clear on the fashioning of God after anything material, and of the earth. But for some bizarre reason (most probably evolutionary psychology) we have come to assume God the father as something of a light skinned old man figure, adorned with well-shaped white beard and firmly rooted upon a golden throne. Something of a sky daddy, a big man, a calm boss. Yet it is not too hard to see the cultural underpinnings of this image of God particularly in Abrahamic religion.
Descending from a long line of highly patriarchal societies and one in which women did not play active roles, it would have been hard, nay impossible, for anyone to conceive that the “supreme being” of the universe was a “mere woman”. Even if one did decide to forge on this contrarian path, how was he to convince his fellow men to kneel and supplicate before a supreme female god? For this reason, one might expect that the default assumption would have been that God was not just a man, but an old man- ensuring that if he was among men, his position in the social hierarchy would be at the very top.
One might consider the above explanation as hogwash, but a cursory look at other mythologies and religions with lesser patriarchal leanings reveal a plethora of female gods in their pantheons. And in many cases, some of these gods did not have any genders assigned to them.
We then get to the question, should we then rewrite the god character as a black woman to right our unimaginative patriarchal thinking? Well, probably not. Just like the astronaut’s answer, the whole point of this mental exercise is to challenge long held notions of God which have no basis in spirituality, but in culture and dogma. But still, as social creatures loyal to culture, we still need an image of God in our head if we must function in the religious setting. Clearly, if the image of the big old bearded guy works for you, just like Santa Claus works for American children, then by all means stick to it.
This question of what God really is, is certainly not new. In the sixth century, a monk in the name of “Dionysius the Areopagite” had this to say about the true nature of God
This style of acknowledging or getting to know God is called in Greek “Agnosia” – knowing, through the process of unknowing. In more modern term, it is referred to as “Via Negativa” – which simply means describing by nullifying. This is to say that, to fully describe God, we simply must state what God is not. For example, we know that God is not human, he is not a creature of emotion, he does not take one shape or form for all eternity, and on and on. These statements are all “Negativa” – similar to the sculptor who makes the statue by “removing” stone. If God is not human, then clearly he is not a man like we’d like to believe, but he’s also not a woman, much less a black one. But next time you imagine God or get on your knees to pray, Imagine for a second that God is a woman, and she is black!