In pre-digital times, people used to keep photographs in albums. As I was growing up, the albums were a dreaded part of the routine whenever anyone came home to visit. I remember cringing as Mum unfurled the pages with the most embarrassing, sometimes even downright ugly representations of me as a child. Of course, mixed in with them were quaint similes of innocence, poignant reminders of lost youth and long forgotten friendships and symbols of the rites of passage indicating the inexorable march of time and the inevitable erasure of infantile purity.
As I reach the middle ages of life I find I appreciate those pictures more and more. They tell very little about the man I am now, but they do tell a story that is, to me at least, worth recalling now and again. And in among those images, if you look carefully enough, you can see early reflections of the man I would eventually become. Although in my adolescent awkwardness I might have been tempted to destroy some of the albums if I had the chance, I am certainly glad now that they have survived.
I think the philosophies, religious traditions and revealed texts of the past are a bit like photo albums - God's photo albums. They might not tell us much about who God is now, but they do reveal something about how he came to be as he is now. And some of the images are every bit as embarrassing, grotesque, quaint and poignant as the pictures in my Mum's albums. Remember, for instance, that picture of God as he ordered the Israelites to destroy every inhabitant of a conquered territory, including the small children? And what about the one where he had just caught a King with another man's wife. Then the King has the woman's husband killed to cover his tracks? And what does God do? He kills the child that results from the adulterous union and the King gets to take the woman as (another) wife. We can dismiss these ideas as the product of the misguided imaginations of a much earlier generation, but I think there is also a sense in which these images portray quite accurately who God was in those times. If, as I do, you think of God as the entire whole of which we are but parts, then God really has to shoulder responsibility for the bad as well as the good. As the Bible character Job said rhetorically to his wife "Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?" (Job 2:10)
The ancient texts reveal an increasingly complex, evolving and growing God, struggling against all the odds to balance the conflicting interests of the whole versus the individual parts. The images tell a more or less true story if we look carefully, and it is not as rosy a picture as we might like it to be. But there are also faint reflections of what God would become. We can see, for example, pale fore-gleams of more holistic and humanistic reasoning in statements like "God is not partial" and the account where Paul likens a group of people to the parts of the human body in which each part has an inherent value and noble purpose within the whole. These are just a couple of pictures from one album, there are many more.
I do not believe we should be too quick to throw out these dusty old albums altogether. We should have the spiritual maturity to appreciate them for what they are, to laugh without discomfiture at the funny ones and to draw what lessons we can, even from the ones where God looks bizarre, ridiculous or even monstrous. They may not paint a very clear picture of any God a freethinking Deist would recognize today, but they are still worth a look now and again. If we look carefully enough, we might even catch a glimpse of what God will yet become.