My oldest daughter has been asking me many difficult spiritual questions lately, some of them prompted by interactions with Christians in other denominations: “What about speaking in tongues?”; “Do we go straight to heaven when we die, or somewhere else?” – questions like that. I am predictable and my answers often start with, “Well, Christians don’t all agree on that subject…” and end with, “but we can disagree and still be brothers and sisters.” That’s me, attempting to live up to one of my favorite quotes: “In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things, charity.”
But sometimes charity fails me. A few days ago my daughter said, quoting a friend in another church, “Then he said, ‘God is a real man, with legit abs.'”
“WHAT? That’s just stupid!” was my intemperate reply. If you want to speculate about the abs of God the Son, carry on, I guess. But God the Father? A “real man, with legit abs?”
It struck me as so silly that I posted the quote to Facebook, and realized (not for the first time) that the world is full of people who don’t see things the way that I do. The first comment was from a deeply Christian friend, saying, “How do you know?” That is, how do I know that God isn’t a “real man, with legit abs?” Thinking that I was being baited – because certainly we’re all in agreement that God is spirit, right? – I didn’t give much of a reply. But just a couple of comments later an old friend repeated the question, followed by a rather harsh indictment: “How do you know? I hate pompous Nazarenes who act like they’ve seen God.” As I told my friend in my reply, I would never deny being pompous, but that seems beside the point at the moment. I’m not claiming to have seen God. In fact, that’s exactly it – no one can see God! God the Father is not a man. He is the “invisible God”, the one “who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see.”
Another friend, a bit of a skeptic by nature, wondered why God would need such good abs. “Would he be any less awesome with a big, flabby gut?” That’s a good question, too. In fact, human nature being what it is, a civilization of flabby people should envision a flabby God – one who is like unto ourselves. We like crafting God in our own image. So I suppose I see why a ripped, Gold’s Gym kind of guy would be all stoked about God with a six pack. But that doesn’t make it so. Unless, maybe, he was talking metaphorical abs. There are plenty of places in scripture that use physical imagery when speaking of God. If we were to take them all literally, not only would God have a face, arms, hands and feet, but also wings, and breasts for nursing.
Mormons believe God the Father has a material body. It’s one of the differences between Mormon doctrine and what the church has traditionally held to be true. The strongly trinitarian nature of Christianity emphasizes the unity of the Father, Son and Spirit in substance, but also holds fast to the distinctiveness of their persons. And only the Son is a person with a body. But these days, to say, “This has been the orthodox Christian position, based on scripture, on this particular issue,” is often received as weak soup. Why should anyone have to listen to the consensus of the historical church on the nature of God? If I want to say that God looks like a saggy, middle aged woman, who’s to stop me? Have you seen God? No? Then surely my version is just as “legit” as yours.
I am sometimes alarmed by the folk religion that passes unchecked in and around the church. I bite the inside of my cheek to keep from asking where so-and-so got the idea that their grandmother could become their guardian angel, or that territorial demons could be attached to a location because of something that happened hundreds of years ago. I place ideas about the physicality of God the Father in the same category. We shrink the mystery down to something that we can manage, something that fits our sensibilities. Personally, in believing that God is spirit and not flesh and blood, that He is the immortal, invisible, ineffable one, I believe He both transcends and encompasses all of our ideas about gender. If God truly is a “real man, with legit abs”, I begin to wonder – in what way am I made in His image?