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Word Gems 

exploring self-realization, sacred personhood, and full humanity


Dr. Marcus Borg



return to the main-page article on "Image Of God: Part I"




Dr. Marcus Borg

Now-retired Professor of Religion at Oregon State University, Dr. Borg is the author of many works, among them: The God We Never Knew and Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.

He offers a powerful idea:

How we think about God, how we mentally image Divinity, affects the entire subsequent flow of our theology. We will treat others, and ourselves, as we imagine God treating us... it is creating God in our own image.


  • Thomas Paine: "Belief in a cruel God makes a cruel man."



excerpts from Dr. Borg's "The God We Never Knew"



The Christian tradition, on the other hand, has throughout its history consistently affirmed that God is both transcendent and immanent, two semi-technical theological terms that are helpful for thinking this through. The transcendence of God refers to God's "going beyond" the universe, God's otherness, God as more than the universe.

God's immanence, on the hand, means God's presence in everything or nearness to everything. Immanence means to dwell with or within, as its Latin root manere suggests (from which, for example, we also get "mansion"). The immanence of God thus means the omnipresence of God.

The two root concepts of God I have described in this chapter are the product of different ways of emphasizing transcendence and immanence. Supernatural theism emphasizes only God's transcendence and essentially denies the immanence of God. God is other than the world and separate from the world. God is "out there" and not here…


The diversity of biblical images of God can also be appreciated by sorting them into categories. Anthropomorphic images portray God in humanlike form: God as king, lord, judge, lawgiver, potter, shepherd, wise woman, father, mother, lover, healer, and so forth. Non-anthropomorphic (non-humanlike) images speak of God as rock, fire, light, eagle, lion, bear, hen, cloud, wind, breath, fortress, shield.

A second category consists of images of distance and images of closeness. Images of distance include especially "king" and the metaphors associated with king: lawgiver, judge, warrior, and so forth.

  • The king was distant: he did not live among the people but in a walled city or palace, most often on a high place. Ordinary people did not often or ever associate with the king; peasants were not invited to royal banquets.

So also with "father": in the framework of the patriarchal family, the father was most often a distant figure, a little king within his family. Often the father (and other men of the family) lived in quarters separate from women and children. Images of closeness, on the other hand, include shepherd, mother, lover, friend, healer, shield, fortress, and breath.

A third category comprises male and female images. Male images are by far more common. This is not surprising, given that the Bible originated in a patriarchal culture and in competition with religious traditions that had both male and female deities. What is more surprising is that female images are sometimes used: God as nurturing mother, woman giving birth, wise woman, and mother bird. There are other images that can apply equally well to either sex: shepherd (both women and men were shepherds), potter, lover, friend. Moreover, the Hebrew word ruach (which means spirit, breath, and wind) is feminine in gender. Thus there is biblical warrant for female images of God.


In the biblical and Christian traditions, these metaphors have commonly clustered around two primary "models" of God. A model is a gestalt that is a foundational or root image. As a gestalt or foundational image, each model constellates several metaphors into a coherent pattern that also images God's relationship to us and to the world. Each model of God thus goes with a model of the Christian life.

  • The first model, which I will call "the monarchical model," clusters together images of God as king, lord, and father; it leads to a "performance model" of the Christian life.

  • The second model clusters together images of God that point to intimate relationship and belonging. I will call it "the Spirit model"; it leads to a "relational model" of the Christian life.

Both models and visions of the Christian life are found throughout all periods of Christian history, though the first is more common. From roughly the fourth century--when Christianity became the dominant religion of Western culture--through the present, the monarchical model has dominated. But alongside it, as an alternative voice, the Spirit model has also persisted. Though features from each model are commonly combined into a synthesis, usually by incorporating the second into the first, it is illuminating to see them as contrasting models of God and contrasting visions of the Christian life. They reflect two different voices within the Christian tradition.


The central elements of this model are found in the root image of God as a king. Put most compactly God is imaged as a male authority figure who is the ruler of the universe. As with an earthly king, images of domination and subjection are central to this model. The model has profound consequences for our images of ourselves, the internal dynamics of the religious life, and the world...


The Effects of the Model

Popular Christianity has been very much shaped by "the myth of the crown" enshrined within the monarchical model.

As Sallie McFague notes,

  • this model is "so prevalent in mainstream Christianity that it is often not recognized as a picture" but instead "accepted as the natural understanding of the relationship of God and the world" Because of this model's prevalence, it is important to analyze its effects.



God as a Distant Powerful Being. As already noted, the monarchical model with its root image of God as king suggests distance. It is a distance of both power and place. Like a king ruling over his kingdom, God's power and authority stand over the world. Like a king living in his walled palace high on a hill, God is separate from the world.

  • Thus the image of God as distant king and lord goes with the concept of God that I described in Chapter One, the all-powerful god of supernatural theism.

Indeed, the monarchical model of God provided the clothing for my childhood concept of God as a supernatural being. Though I imaged God more as a father than as a king, it amounted to the same thing: God as a powerful male authority figure "out there." The monarchical image of God thus has the same problems as does the concept of God as a supernatural being separate from the world.

God as Male. The monarchical model uses male images to speak of God. This has consequences not only for the lives of women but also for the lives of men, a point to which I will soon return.

God as Lawgiver and Judge. As noted, this model can speak powerfully of the love of God. But it does so within the legal framework and logic of the model itself God as lawgiver and judge...
 it is God imaged as a high school principal unhappily leafing through our records. When this happens, the Christian life becomes confused with life under the punitive superego. We are never good enough...



How to name this model is not so obvious. The phrase "monarchical model" flows naturally out of its root metaphor of God as king. But no single metaphor so clearly epitomizes the alternative model. In the absence of an obvious choice, I suggest "Spirit" as a root image for this model of God, and the phrase "Spirit model" as a designator for the model itself.

  • It leads to an image of the Christian life that stresses relationship, intimacy, and belonging.


The Spirit Model

As a root metaphor for the sacred, Spirit images God as a nonmaterial reality pervading the universe as well as being more than the universe. As used in the Bible (and as used here), its meaning is broader than the specific Christian doctrine of "the Holy Spirit," which sees it as one aspect of God. But in the Bible,

  • Spirit is used comprehensively to refer to God's presence in creation, in the history of Israel, and in the life of Jesus and the early church.

Its meaning is sufficiently broad to make it a synonym for the sacred. Spirit "evokes a universal perspective and signifies divine activity in its widest reaches. Strongly associated with God's presence in and engagement with the world (God's immanence), Spirit also points to God's transcendence. It images "God's ongoing transcending engagement with the world.

Some of its resonances of meaning are suggested by the Hebrew word for Spirit. Ruach also means wind and breath. The associations of both are suggestive. Both are invisible yet manifestly real. We cannot see the wind, though its presence and effects are felt; it moves without being seen. When it blows, it is all around us. Breath is like wind inside the body. For the ancient Hebrews (as for us), it was associated with life. Metaphorically, God as Spirit is both wind and breath, a nonmaterial reality outside of us and within us. Our breath is God breathing us, and God is as near to us as our own breath. Speaking of God as Spirit, as both wind and breath, evokes both transcendence and nearness.

The monarchical model also affirms that God is Spirit, of course. The king who rules the universe is not a flesh-and-blood king.

But there is a difference:

  • when Spirit is assimilated to the monarchical model, God is not Spirit but a spirit--that is, a spiritual being who is out there, not here.

But when Spirit is not domesticated and diminished by the monarchical model, Spirit retains the suggestive meanings associated with breath and wind: God is the encompassing Spirit both within us and outside us.

Specific Metaphors for God as Spirit

The model of God as Spirit is clothed with a number of more specific metaphors. As we shall see, their associations are different in important ways from God as king, lord, and father.

Non-anthropomorphic Metaphors. There are a number of non-anthropomorphic images in addition to wind and breath. God as "rock" can connote either God's distance or God's closeness. The Hebrew word for rock does not mean a big stone but "cliff"--hence a mountain or high place. God as rock can point to distance: God is in the heights, known at the top of a mountain (as in the Sinai story). God as rock can also evoke closeness. A mountain or high place is a place of refuge and safety; fortresses are built on high places, and a mountain may have caves in which one can hide or seek shelter. Here God as "rock" is something that one can be "on" or "in";

  • it is a metaphor of nearness.

So also fire and light are images of nearness: one must be close enough to a light to see it, close enough to a fire to be warmed (or protected or purified) by it.

God as Mother. Sometimes God as Spirit is imaged as a human mother, sometimes as a mother animal. Resonances include birthing and nurturing. Like a hovering or brooding bird, God as Spirit creates the world. Spirit is like a woman in labor, giving birth. Spirit is like a mother caring for her children and comforting them. One of God's central qualities is compassion, a word that in Hebrew is related to the word for "womb." Not only is compassion a female image suggesting source of life and nourishment but it also has a feeling dimension: God as compassionate Spirit feels for us as a mother feels for the children of her womb. Spirit feels the suffering of the world and participates in it.

God as Intimate Father. In common Christian usage, as previously noted, God as father is most frequently assimilated to the monarchical image of God. But this is quite different from the biblical use of the metaphor. In both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, God as father is often used in contexts of intimacy--in contrast to the post-biblical patriarchal use of father within the framework of the monarchical model. Its frequency in the New Testament is probably because of Jesus' use of abba, an intimate form of "father." It names God as the intimate father who is close at hand and who may be trusted to give good gifts to his children.

God as Wisdom (Sophia). Another female image for the sacred in the Bible is "the wisdom woman," "the wise woman," or "Sophia." Sophia is the wisdom of God personified as a woman. She is an important figure in Proverbs and in two other works of pre-Christian Jewish wisdom, the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus (sometimes known as Sirach). The latter two were part of the Christian Bible until the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century "demoted" them to "the apocrypha," which gave them a secondary (though still important) status. Though they remain in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles, they are not in many Protestant Bibles, which may help to explain the surprise (and shock) that Sophia language causes in some Protestant circles.

The relationship between Sophia and God is complex. Sometimes Sophia is spoken of as a figure separate from God yet in very close relationship to God. She performs divine functions and thus is the functional equivalent of God. Moreover, there are texts in which the word Sophia is used when we would expect the word God to be used; the author treats them as interchangeable terms. Thus Sophia is not simply a personification of God's wisdom but also an image or metaphor for God.

Sophia as a metaphor for Spirit is associated especially with Spirit's presence in the world. God as the wise woman is not only the architect and means of creation but is also present in the created order. She is the Shekinah, the divine presence dwelling with the Israelites in their history. She speaks through prophets, summons people to live by her wisdom, and invites people to her banquet of bread and wine. Sophia as a metaphor for Spirit suggests closeness and presence, guidance and nourishment.

God as Lover. Images of God as lover or spouse and of us as God's beloved are found in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Sometimes marriage imagery is used, and sometimes the language is explicitly sexual. Hosea uses the image of God as lover with particular frequency and power. The Israel of his day is portrayed as the unfaithful beloved who has adulterously strayed from God; like a jealous lover, God is angered, yet yearns for the return of the beloved, alluring her and speaking tenderly to her. In the Song of Songs, whatever its original setting and meaning, the lover-beloved imagery with all of its eroticism has commonly been understood in both Jewish and Christian traditions as a story of the mystical relationship between God the lover and us the beloved. In the New Testament, the church is spoken of as the bride of Christ, who is the bridegroom.

Because the biblical image of God as lover developed within an androcentric and patriarchal culture, the male is typically imaged as the  lover and the female as the beloved. But there is nothing intrinsically male about the lover image. It is an anthropomorphic image for Spirit that can be either male or female. The image is particularly rich. Lover and beloved delight in each other. They prize and value each other. They yearn for each other. It can also involve betrayal and jealousy. It is a relationship of extraordinary intimacy. It is a striking image for the divine-human relationship.

God as Journey Companion. Rather than a single image, this is a category of images pointing to God as a companion who travels with us. It includes the pillar of fire by night and the cloud by day that led the Israelites through the wilderness, as well as the presence of God that tented among them in a mobile home (the tabernacle). God as shepherd is another such image, but with the added dimension of nourishment and protection. The shepherd not only travels with the sheep but leads them to water and food, finds shelter, protects them, and seeks them when they go astray. In the New Testament, journey companion imagery is associated especially with Jesus. A disciple is one who journeys with Jesus... In the Emmaus Road story, the risen Christ journeys with his disciples, even though they do not recognize him. And in John's gospel, the image of God as shepherd is applied to Jesus: the Johannine Jesus is "the good shepherd" ...


The biblical metaphors for the Spirit model affect our root image
of God in three quite obvious ways. First, these metaphors emphasize the nearness of God rather than the distance implied by the monarchical model. They evoke closeness, relationship, and connection.

  • God as Spirit is near, at hand; indeed, we live within Spirit.

Nearness also involves concern: God as Spirit is compassionate. God is the womb-like one who gave birth to us, who nurtures us, cares for us, yearns for us. Yet though these metaphors emphasize nearness and immanence, they also affirm transcendence: God as Spirit is more than any of these metaphors, just as Spirit is more than the space-time world.

Second, both male and female metaphors (as well as some that are neither) are used, rather than the exclusively male images of the monarchical model. God is like a woman giving birth, like a mother raising her children, like Sophia the wisdom woman; God is like an intimate father. Moreover, some images go equally well with either gender: God as lover, as companion or friend, even as shepherd. The use of both male and female metaphors makes it clear, of course, that God is neither male nor female, something that we presumably have always known (though the insistence in some circles on male imagery and pronouns makes one wonder).

The awareness that there are female metaphors for God in the Bible is helpful in a time of sensitivity to the impact of gender language: there is biblical warrant for female images. Moreover, this is not simply a matter of linguistic gender equality (important as that is), for these images affect the psyches of both men and women and shape attitudes toward society and nature.

Third, rather than the essentially anthropomorphic image of God as
king, lord, and patriarchal father, the metaphors for God as Spirit include both non-anthropomorphic and anthropomorphic images. The presence of both is suggestive. Anthropomorphic images of the sacred are sometimes simply viewed as human projections (which, of course, they are, just as all images of God are). But they are also the natural language of relationship. That is, they suggest that there is a personal dimension to the relationship to God.

Yet non-anthropomorphic images suggest that God is not simply a person. Combining the two suggests that the relationship to God is personal, even as God is more than a person. The sacred is not simply a non-animate mystery but a presence. To use an ancient image from the Bible, these metaphors lead to a covenantal model of the divine-human relationship. The term covenant emphasizes relationship and belonging. It is an intrinsically dialogical model, an "I-You" model of our relationship to the one to whom we belong.

These metaphors also have an affective dimension. They do not simply lead to a set of intellectual conclusions about God's nearness and concern but also affect the feeling level of the psyche. Image God as lover, or as wind and breath, or as nurturing mother, or as "the You" who is present whether we know it or not, or as any of the other images we have reviewed. How does this feel as an image of God, compared to imaging God as a distant king, lawgiver, and judge? How does it feel as an image of yourself in relation to God?


Creation looks different. Within the popular version of the monarchical model, God's creation of the world is typically understood as an event in the distant past and as involving the creation of a universe separate from God. The Spirit model, with its emphasis on connectedness, can see God's creation as an ongoing activity: in every moment of time, God as Spirit (as the nonmaterial "ground" of all that is) is bringing the universe into existence.

  • Creation is not about what happened "in the beginning" but about what is always happening.

To speak of God as creator is to speak of the ongoing dependence of the universe on Spirit. Spirit is constantly vibrating (to use another metaphor) the world into existence.

The human condition looks different.

  • Our central problem is not sin and guilt, as it is within the monarchical model. For the Spirit model, our central problem is "estrangement," whose specific meaning of "separated from that to which one belongs" is most appropriate. For the Spirit model, we are in God, whether we know it or not; we belong to God, whether we know it or not; and God is present to us, whether we 'experience that presence or not.

But we commonly live our lives "east of Eden," outside of paradise (where paradise is understood to be the manifest presence of God). Our problem is our estrangement, our blindness to the presence of God, our separation from the Spirit who is all around us and within us and to which we belong.

Sin looks different. For the monarchical model, sin is primarily disloyalty to the king, seen especially as disobedience to his laws. The metaphors used to express the Spirit model suggest something else. For the metaphor of God as lover, sin is unfaithfulness--that is, sin is going after other lovers. This is a classic image for idolatry: making something other than Spirit central, giving one's primary loyalty to something other than God. Idolatry--infidelity to God--is the root sin from which more specific acts follow. For the metaphor of God as the compassionate one who cares for all of her children, sin is failure in compassion, whether individually or socially in the form of an unjust society. Sin includes inflicting suffering on those who are also God's creation, as well as being indifferent to their suffering...

Within the model of God as Spirit, monarchical imagery subverts the monarchical model itself.


The images of God associated with the Spirit model are rich, and they dramatically affect how we think of the Christian life. Rather than God being a distant being with whom we might spend eternity, Spirit -- the sacred -- is right here.

Rather than God being the lawgiver and judge whose requirements must be met and whose justice must be satisfied, God is the lover who yearns to be in relationship to us.

Rather than sin and guilt being the central dynamic of the Christian life, the central dynamic becomes relationship--with God, the world, and each other.

The Christian life is about turning toward and entering into relationship with the one who is already in relationship with us--with the one who gave us life, who has loved us from the beginning, and who loves us whether we know that or not, who journeys with us whether we know that or not.

  • The Christian life thus has at its center becoming conscious of that relationship.



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