Your image of God creates you—or defeats you. There is an absolute connection between how you see God and how you see yourself and the whole universe. The word “God” is first of all a stand-in for everything—reality, truth, and the very shape of your universe. This is why theology is important, and why good theology and spirituality can make so much difference in how you live your daily life in this world. Theology is not just theoretical, but ends up being quite practical—practically up-building or practically defeating.
After years of giving and receiving spiritual direction, it has become obvious to me and to many of my colleagues that most peoples’ operative, de facto image of God is initially a subtle combination of their Mom and their Dad, or any early authority figures. Without an interior journey of prayer or experience, much of religion is largely childhood conditioning, which God surely understands and works with. But this is what atheists and many former believers rightly react against because such religion is so childish and often fear-based, even if their arguments are blowing down a straw man. The goal, of course, is to grow toward an adult religion that includes both reason and faith and inner experience that you can trust. A mature God creates mature people. A big God creates big people.
If your Mom was punitive, your God is usually punitive too, and you actually spend much of your life submitting to that punitive God or angrily reacting against it. If your Dad (or your minister or early God teachers) were cold and withdrawn, you will assume that God is cold and withdrawn—all Scriptures, Jesus, and mystics to the contrary. If all authority in your life came through males, you probably prefer a male image of God, even if your heart says otherwise. As we were taught in Scholastic philosophy, “everything is received according to the manner of the receiver.” This is one of those things hidden in plain sight, but still remains well hidden to most Christians.
Frankly, if your early authority figures were merciful and forgiving, you have a great big emotional head start in understanding the Gospel and who God might really be. This is why denominational affiliations in the end mean very little. Yes, good theology and preaching will help, but I have met evangelicals with very limited theology who are bright and alive. They invariably had a bright and alive upbringing, and their hearts tend to be generous.
I also meet Catholics and Anglicans with a more expansive theology who nevertheless are dour and dominating. They invariably had an early worldview that was all about counting, measuring, making inner lists, and doling out rewards and punishments. The expansive and open world of grace will actually be a scandal to them. They are upset because God is so “generous” (see Matthew 20:16). Such people find it sincerely hard to live in the frame of reference which Jesus calls “the Reign of God.” They are much more secure in a meritocracy of quid pro quo and resent anyone getting anything they have not worked for and “deserved.”
This is all mirrored in our political worldviews, of course. Good theology makes for good politics and positive social relationships. Bad theology makes for stingy politics, xenophobia, and highly-controlled relationships. No wonder that both Freud and Jung believed that low-level religion creates mostly “anal retentive” people, to use a rather unkind but truly descriptive phrase.
For me as a Christian, the mostly undeveloped image of God as Trinity is the way out and the way through all limited concepts of God. Jesus comes to invite us into that flow—which only flows in one entirely positive direction.