Thank you for visiting Biola’s Center for Christian Thought. This site is not being updated on a regular basis while we are developing new projects for the future. In the meantime, please continue to enjoy the videos, podcasts and articles currently available on the site.

The Table Video

James K.A. Smith, Todd Pickett& Betsy Barber

A Story in Your Bones: God Concept vs. God Image

Professor of Philosophy / Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview, Calvin College
Dean of Spiritual Development, Biola University
Director, Center for Spiritual Renewal and Associate Professor of Spirituality and Psychology, Biola University
March 28, 2014

How do you REALLY feel about God? What are your gut intuitions about God the Father’s love for you? So often there is a gap between what you know intellectually about God (your God concept) and what you feel at the deepest level about God (your God image). James K.A. Smith, Betsy Barber, and Todd Pickett in a CCT Conversation on Embodied Spirituality: Exploring Christian Spiritual Formation.

So talk a little bit about this, you’ve been helped a lot by neuroscientists and some philosophers in kind of re-understanding the role of imagination, even in kind of anchoring in us a world view. We tend to think of the world view as a more analytical kind of practice. But you say no, the imagination is really kind of at the core of a world view. Talk about how we need to understand the imagination.

Yeah, and it’s tough because I’m sort of using the imagination as a word to name, I think maybe what other people would just call our intuitions about the world, right? But it’s this, in other words, to imagine your world is to make sense of it pre-analytically. Maybe that’s a way of getting at it.

You talk about also pre-consciously.

And also pre-consciously.

Talk about it as a kind of unconscious.

James: It is kind of unconscious, right.

Would you say what I know by heart?

Yeah, exactly. And yet, it’s not a hardwired thing, right? So we’re not just, there’s a biological platform on which this operates. And yet, what we’re talking about are habitual ways of learning how to perceive the world that often we don’t articulate, and yet, kind of governed our feel for the world. It’s more like a know-how, right? And it just strikes me that a lot of recent research in neuroscience, cognitive science, even social psychology. I think kind of confirms a lot of ancient intuitions about spiritual formation, which is this is a sort of know-how that you carry in your gut that you learn. It’s caught more than it’s taught. And yet, that doesn’t mean that it’s not intentional, aimed at the world. It’s even its own kind of understanding but it builds on operations I would say. I’m not a psychologist. I’m always intimidated to tread on your terrain here, but.

Go for it.

It seems like it’s working on a register between body and mind. A French philosopher that I draw on a lot, Maurice Marleau-Ponty, makes a lot of the sense of the between. It’s the imagination is between intellect and instinct, right? It’s this sort of know-how that is built-up overtime. And sometimes, you have to unlearn things that you’ve acquired in your imagination. You have to learn how to reimagine who you are, what you are. And I think the reason why stories are so important is in some ways, Christian formation is the renarration of our identity in Christ. And it’s like all of us carry a story in our bones. And some of us actually have absorbed a story that’s not true, right? We’ve absorbed a fall story.

And these are the secular liturgies that maybe talked about.

Yeah, and I mean, and the scary thing is too it can happen for Christians.

It can happen in church.

I mean, you can be raised in a church and come from a really dysfunctional family context or really kind of toxic Christian context. And it turns out that you’ve absorbed a story that is other than the gospel’s story. And so then, what has to happen is, yes, you might intellectually grasp the good news of the gospel but it might take an entire season of your life. It might take a lifetime to relearn at that imagination level that the Father loves you.

So we, all of us, I honestly think is what scriptures gonna when it talks about, then now we see through the glass darkly then we’ll know as we’re known. It’s that when we see him face-to-face, then we’re gonna go, oh, that’s you! Oh, that’s me. Because we’ll see ourselves mirrored in his eyes and that will be the real last that he’s been loving all along.

James: Yeah, that’s beautiful.

Psalm 86:11 talks about, “Unite my heart “and let me praise your name.” So we’re all living to some extent with a divided heart.

James: Yes.

We’re all living under a false identity.

James: Yeah.

Now, to the extent that our parents were good enough parents as Winnicott would say, and so to the extent that our parents could care for the little people we were and tolerate our emotions and explain the world to us and train us. Then when we come and hear the good news of the gospel, it’s gonna be good news.


But I honestly know somebody who loves a little dearly, and came to me for spiritual direction which is different than therapy. And we’re talking about our prayer life, and so I asked her, when you talk to God about this, how do you sense he’s receiving you? And she said, “I would never bring this up to God. “Why would I wanna call his attention to me? “I’m just hoping when I die, he’ll let me in.” And so there we see how her, exactly what you’re talking about. This early, the wrong message, the lie that she was given. Your job is to be quiet and sit in the corner, and if you’re lucky, we’ll feed ya. And so then when she hears about God, she loves him but she doesn’t know him and she certainly doesn’t believe on him.

And it’s almost like there can be a gap between your intellectual grasp of the gospel which is absolutely crucial. And your sort of existential absorption of the reality of that good news, right?

You got concept versus your God image.

James: Okay.

Todd: Yeah.