The Bible talks a lot about idolatry, the sin of shrinking the infinite God down to a finite physical image. Today, a different kind of idolatry is popular, especially among fundamentalists: the sin of shrinking God into a finite mental image, entirely captured by human words. Just as in ancient times, it’s easy to collapse an infinite mystery into something finite that we can own and defend.
But is there really any alternative? Can we talk about God (or read the Bible’s words about God) without committing idolatry?
Paul Tillich, a very brilliant (and very dead) theologian thought so. His solution was to interpret our words about God as non-literal symbols. Rather than treating our words like photographs of the divine (AKA idolatry), we should treat them like roadmarkers which point towards something they can’t contain. Symbols allow us to talk about God without pretending to define God.
We humans are frustratingly limited, finite creatures, so all human contact with God must necessary come through our finite words and experiences. Words are a crucial part of interacting with the divine. But we shouldn’t forget that these are always finite pointers towards infinite mystery, not ultimate containers for the Uncontainable. Like most things, words are great as long as we don’t ignore their limits.
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