to help you discover the God you already know

Top down or bottom up

I was talking with a friend recently, and he mentioned the vision that Julian of Norwich had in which she saw God as a Lord and human beings as the Lord’s servants.  I had to admit that while I understand that image of God in my head it doesn’t engage with either my heart or my soul, and it’s therefore not an image that has ever spoken to me. Obviously it spoke to Julian through her vision, and continues to speak to some today, so I found myself pondering why it doesn’t to me?

The thought came to me that it is an image that speaks top down, whereas I look for images of God that work bottom up. By which I mean that you can either start with a top down assumption about God [in this case as all powerful] and then look for a image from human experience that might enlighten the relationship between God and human beings.  I can understand that in a culture where one person visibly exercises a great deal of power and control over those beneath them, then to think of God as a Lord, albeit a very different sort of Lord from the earthly ones, makes quite a lot of sense.  But I don’t live in such a culture and am glad that I don’t. Some of course do.

I live in a culture that has become rightly suspicious of the motives of those who wield power, all too often with negative consequences, and is in awe of the immensity of the universe in which we inhabit a tiny part, of the complexity both of our natural world and of the human body and mind.  I have never much doubted the existence of God but, like Job, God’s transcendence is way beyond my comprehension. So I begin my spiritual exploration from a different place, and proceed bottom up, so to speak.

I began  with questions about the existence of God and the meaning of life, and a different friend encouraged me to take that questioning seriously, and to trust that what I would later call my intuition, my soul, the God within me, my sense of inner knowing, was a trustworthy guide to the exploration of those questions.  I thus learnt to place ultimate authority in these matters within me, rather than delegating it outside me to someone or something else. 

My understanding of God has therefore been derived for the most part from my own experience of a God Who, somewhat to my surprise, has come to find, meet and call me. I have found God to be loving, accepting and trusting of me. A supportive presence and sometimes a supportive absence, Who knows better than I do what is in my best interests, and Whom I have learnt, for the most part, to trust.  What is key for me is that word trust.  Not trust in a belief system or an authority figure, but trust in what I can best describe as feeling like a relationship with a Presence/Absence that is beyond my comprehension. 

This is what I mean by bottom up, its based on my own experience.  So I’m not sure that I have an image of God, partly because God must be beyond my understanding, and partly because no human image is entirely adequate for the trusting relationship I experience. The idea of God as Lord & human beings as the Lord’s servants seems, the more I reflect on it, to be unhelpful.  

The question of whether our thinking about God is top down or bottom up is bound to shape much else in our life, its a defining one.  If your thinking is top down then you’re likely to be most comfortable in a religious structure that is also top down, with authority figures and texts in which you place your trust & which in turn, tell you what to believe and do. If its bottom up you’re more likely to prefer a servant leadership that supports but challenges you in nourishing your own experiential relationship with God. In the former, trusting yourself is often presented as the opposite of trusting God, in the latter the two are seen as complementary. For me, trusting your own soul ‘as your pilot’ is actually trusting the immanent God within you. 

1 Comment

  1. keith jeffries

    Henry,
    I read with interest your thoughts on God as Lord and we as his servants as described by your friend describing the vision of Julian of Norwich. My experience of God and my personal relationship with him has slowly matured over the years and I believe that I have reached a place where God is Father as clearly described in the prodigal Son. My spiritual life during its infancy under went a radical change as I trained to be a Spiritual Director which necessitated an in depth study of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. This had a profound effect on my prayer life which developed into a very personal friendship with God. I now understand how times of consolation and desolation affect this friendship. It brought into focus John 14:23 and the presence of God within us and how we respond to this. Julian of Norwich and the Cloud of Unknowing must be seen in its historical context with due consideration to the language used, similarly so with Ignatius who was caught up in the Counter Reformation.

    The realisation that God is my father, whose love and mercy are infinite gives me great comfort. I now speak to him with all the attributes of an intimate friendship. This friendship has become a bond by which I can, to some strange extent, preempt God’s response to my prayer or actions. He speaks to me as if ‘out of the blue’ with a profound impact which often shocks me and causes me to reassess my intentions or thoughts. He is the constant companion, almost one who holds my hand but at times disappears for a while. Then I am bereft and ask for him to come to me. These periods of desolation are for good reasons which are often only manifest at a later time.

    You use the word trust and this I would endorse absolutely. I trust God implicitly even in those times when I possibly harbour some doubts about what he is saying to me. His faithfulness is always proven, his words are true and his love deserves our trust.

    In the life of the Church we are involved in regularly using inappropriate language which invariably has us placed in a hierarchical structure. The Book of Common Prayer exemplifies this. “We thy humble unworthy servants etc” I am utterly convinced in the sincerity and strength of God’s love for me. It has been tried and tested and never been found wanting.
    Keith Jeffries

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