In Our Own Image: American Christians Imagine God Looks Like Them

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By Brett Beasley 7-05-2018
Image via Joshua Conrad Jackson, Neil Hester, Kurt Gray, and University of North Carolina -Chapel Hill. 

For most Christians, “seeking the face of God” means praying or reading Scripture. But recently, a group of over 500 American Christians were asked to take the idea quite literally. As part of a study by researchers at UNC Chapel Hill, they were asked to look at images on a computer screen and select images that, to them, represented God.

The three psychologists behind the study employed a new method called “reverse correlation.” In this method, participants see hundreds of pairs of images. In each pair, they pick the image that most resembles the face of God. The images in each pair may vary only slightly from one another, but once the process is complete, the researchers can draw upon all of the selected images to generate a composite. That composite is then analyzed by individuals who do not know where the image came from.

Unlike picking a single image of God from a lineup, this method is subtle — it aims to uncover believers’ subconscious, intuitive ideas about what God is like.

So how do American Christians imagine God?

The overall composite image of God’s face that resulted from the selections has a few obvious features. The face is masculine, white, and young. These features stand out best in comparison with what the researchers call God’s “anti-face,” a composite of all of the images in each pair participants did not choose. This anti-face was more feminine, older, and darker skinned.

But not all American Christians saw God in the same way. The researchers generated composites based on the images chosen by liberals and conservatives. The images show that conservatives imagined God as more masculine, older, more Caucasian, and less loving than liberals.

This research shows that members of the same faith go about their lives with different intuitive images of God in mind. And from the standpoint of Christian ethics, this matters.

One of the most important moral injunctions for Christians is to attempt to see God in others — especially in people who are marginalized and oppressed. As Pope Francis recently said, “Every stranger who knocks at our door is an opportunity for an encounter with Jesus Christ, who identifies with the welcomed and rejected strangers of every age.”

It might seem that liberals may be marginally better positioned to meet this moral challenge. Their intuitive sense of God appears to be less bound by rigid, traditional images of God as older, white, and male.

And yet one of the study’s most striking findings concerns just how egocentric many believers’ images of God are. Across the board, those who participated in the study intuitively saw God as similar to themselves — not just in categories like race and age but also in more inane ways. Older participants imagined an older God. And participants who rated themselves as more attractive also intuitively saw God as more attractive.

This study highlights something important about the moral demand to see God in others. It is difficult, but it is also all the more important because we are powerfully predisposed to do the opposite — that is, to make God in our own image.

Brett Beasley (@Brett_Beasley) is a writer and researcher at the University of Notre Dame.

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