By: Julia Somerset
My picture of God is different whenever I experience change. I am now feeling settled after a recent cross-country move and career change. When I return to the Bible and feel renewed in my prayer life after all the chaos, I find that I am talking to a God who feels a little different to me. This has gotten me thinking about the way our surroundings influence our ideas about who God is: the people we know, the things we do all day, our worries and joys, our responsibilities. All of these things teach us new things about God, both in affirmative ways—showing us new aspects of God’s character—and negative ways—showing us what God is NOT. We are constantly surrounded by images that fall into one category or the other, and the images and symbols change when our lives change.
I listened to a podcast on my commute today that included some thoughts about Charles Williams’ famous book, The Figure of Beatrice. Beatrice is a character in Dante’s Divine Comedy (I like to study Dante in my spare time), and she plays a pivotal role in Dante’s salvation. She was a real woman that Dante knew and deeply loved who died tragically as a young woman. Her loveliness, virtue, and Dante’s love for her become symbols about what God is like. She eventually leads Dante through his journey through heaven and enables him to view the beatific vision—the picture of God in Heaven.
Beatrice may be the most important literary symbol in the western canon. Today I read the introduction to Charles Williams’ book about her, and I am suddenly alive with ideas. Williams looks at Beatrice as the ultimate literary image because of what she says about images as a whole. He analyzes Beatrice in terms of the popular medieval notion of the via negativa versus the via affirmativa. The via negativa looks at all things that have been compared to God and all things that have been said about Him, and says, “No, this is not Him” to each one of them. Nothing is God except God, and indeed nothing is like God except Himself. The via affirmativa says the opposite. It looks at all images and symbols and says they are shadows of God or show us small aspects of his character. Symbols are sign posts that point the way, as C.S. Lewis would say.
Williams writes that there are no humans who can live entirely in one of these camps. One cannot entirely renounce all symbolism and imagery, nor can one on the via affirmativa feel that he has can perfectly understand or describe God through images and symbols. Both paths fall short, and both are necessary.
Dante is, of course, decidedly in the affirmative camp. For him, all that he has read, learned, felt, and experienced is a step on his own journey toward God, and—importantly—Beatrice herself is the ultimate image. Because she has the power to transport Dante so far in his spiritual journey, her immense power as an image gives meaning and importance to all the other images used along the way.
These academic categories become meaningful to me when I start looking at the world around me and take note of the way it changes my view of God. When I am living in a rural area and see the beauty of nature constantly around me, the created world helps me focus on God’s power as an ingenious creator. When I am in a busy city, I focus more on the masses of strangers around me, and I think about the way Jesus teaches us to treat strangers like friends. When I am stressed at work, I remember the peaceful Psalms and that God wants us to live in confidence and tranquility. When I am surrounded by friends and family, I think of how we all are bound together within the Body of Christ.