At some point in a human existence, most of us spend some time grappling with the idea of God. For some, this grappling ends with a quick brush-off. Others (like me) wind up spending pretty much the rest of their lives working him out. The hardest part? If there is an all-powerful, non-corporeal being who is impossible to interact with in a direct way, how on earth can we even being to really understand him? (Heads up, I'm using the male pronoun here because English doesn't have a neutral, not because I think God is a man.)
That's where personifications come in. Characters like Aslan (of C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe - check the Wikipedia if you've never heard of it) are beloved by spiritual-types because he gives us phrases like, “he isn't safe, but he's good”, helping us grasp something incomprehensible in an omniscient deity's power and love.
I would like to submit, for you evaluation, criticism, and spiritual enlightenment, a new Aslan: The Doctor.
In a nutshell, The Doctor (of the BBC's Doctor Who) plumbs the depths of what it means to be an immortal, all-knowing creature with all of space and time at his disposal, and through it shows us something of what it might be like to be God in relationship with humans. He also comes back from the dead and saves the day, often dramatically and at the last second, like another deity we've heard of.
Here's how The Doctor helps me understand God:
1) He loves us. Like crazy.
The Doctor has an odd, deep, nonsensical love for humanity. He doesn't just think we're pretty cool; he loves us fiercely and actually marvels at us. There are many episodes where he goes on an unprovoked rant about how incredible humans are, citing our blundering inquisitiveness, our tenacity, and our capacity for love as evidence of our lovableness.
His love isn't blind, though. He sees our selfish, cruel, and destructive tendencies just as much as our good. He reacts to it with fury, getting so upset he banishes us from his sight. Yet, his love is untainted. He gets so mad that he can't even talk to us, but he still comes back to save us and spend time with us. Could this be unconditional love?
2) He fights for us.
The Doctor fights for us. Both in the obvious, saving-our-skins-from-big-scary-space-jerks kind of way, and in a subtler, relational way.
If an alien wants to crash a replica of the Titanic into Buckingham Palace, rest assured, he will stop it. (“God” save the queen?) He doesn't just see the big danger, though. He sees when his favourite couple's marriage is in danger, and he responds. He puts them into a situation where they have no choice but to communicate, where they need each other once again, and gives them a way to get over their pride and stay together.
4) He is, sometimes, absent.
The Doctor is always there for us – sort of. Yes, he saves humanity time and time again, but sometimes we are left to fend for ourselves.
When he leaves young Amelia Pond for five minutes and then doesn't come back for ten years, for all intents and purposes she has been abandoned. Let's think about this for a second: she lost her parents, was in a strange place, AND had a crack in her wall with people talking on the other side that no one believed her about. She finally meets someone who will help her. He says he has to leave but promises to come right back. Then, like everyone else in her life, he disappears. Faith? Out the door.
Watching the show, I know that the Doctor has not abandoned her. That he would have been back right on time except something bigger prevented him and she can't see that because he lives outside of space and time and she doesn't. In fact, by his clock, he was back in five minutes. His clock is just different from hers.
So how about a God who “hears” his peoples' cries after 40 years of slavery? Who we all feel abandoned by at one time or another? What string of wibblly-wobbly timey-whimey stuff is he running down?
5) He is sometimes restricted.
Along with the mystery of God's absence, can be the mystery of his inaction. Sometimes he acts, scooping people out of the way of oncoming cars, giving them jobs, healing their pain. Sometimes, though, he doesn't do a thing.
There is always a point in each companion's journey with The Doctor where he cannot, or will not, save someone they love. They inevitably scream at him, “What good are you, then?”, because when we encounter a being with supreme powers to save and heal, we start to expect them to use them all the time.
He looks into the eyes of the one he cannot save and says, with deep sorrow, “I'm sorry.” It's always heartbreaking, because you can see how badly he wants to help, but he can't. Perhaps something bigger is getting in the way, or perhaps the consequences of him crossing that line are too far-reaching. Whatever it is, he does not act and it hurts us all - him included.
God created a universe with rules and gave us free will. Perhaps he, too, is sometimes left to helplessly watch.
6) He is ridiculously loveable.
More than once, while watching Doctor Who, I have thought “why can't God be more like the Doctor? He's so personable and smart and quirky and funny and kind of sexy. People drop everything to travel with him.” Then I realized that, by the only accounts we have, when God was a human, people did drop everything to travel with him. All it took was an invitation and they were at his side.
Perhaps he wasn't the slow-speaking, pensive downer portrayed in most of his biopics. Maybe, just maybe, he was actually personable and fun. Weird to think about, right?
7) He gives second chances. A lot.
The Doctor will give second chances to every single cackling, crab-legged monster he encounters. He will stand, without a weapon or a shield, in front of a filthy creature bent on destruction, and he will not condemn it. Instead, he will ask it for its name, where it's from, and what it wants. He speaks its language.
No matter how great this alien-monster's wrong, he offers compassion and a chance to make it right. What better example of grace and redemption is there than a defenceless man who offers a loathsome, criminal creature love?
8) He needs us.
The Doctor not only loves humanity, but he needs it. Without his human companions, things get scary. He might go too far in taking out a villain or get too lost in his own power.
In church-going circles, people love to gloss over the parts in the Bible where God needs or is influenced by humanity, but maybe we should consider taking them at face value. What does it mean if a piddly human is actually able to change history by convincing God to save a city instead of destroying it?
Perhaps God needs to be in a relationship with us as much as we need to be in one with him? Maybe God, like The Doctor, shouldn't travel alone.
9) His story is bigger than us.
The Doctor lives outside of time. We see one tiny portion of the Doctor's story, selected for a televised narrative. Every once and a while the show will hint at his past and we will suddenly be reminded how much more there is to this one, tiny man, and that we will never fully understand him.
So are we left to understand God through our tiny, finite view of his story. No wonder he doesn't always make sense.