It’s a tricky business, giving a physical image to God, complicated by the fact that in Christian theology He is a NoBody, a bodyless and immaterial Being. This has not stopped artists giving the Father an impressive physique, long hair and a beard, and the Son – the Word made flesh – the features and robes of a Jewish rabbi; the Holy Spirit they always portray as a . . . bird ! The Third Person of the Blessed Trinity apparently appeared above the head of Jesus at His baptism in the form of a dove. Christian iconography has retained this symbol of God’s gentleness ever since.
The Trinity’s Number Three has been the subject of considerable controversy and even schism within the Church. Does He “proceed” from the Father alone or from both the Father and the Son (“Filioque”) ? The Roman and Orthodox churches are still divided on the subject, which frankly I find boring compared with the names given the Divine Person symbolized by a common or garden bird. His most sophisticated and least used name is “Paraclete”, a Greek word chosen to identify Him as a “Comforter”. We know Him – or at least speak of Him – as the Holy Ghost or the Holy Spirit. The former is a Saxon word, avoided by those who preferring not to associate the said Ghost with haunted houses and Hallowe’en, choose the latter Latin appellation.
But the avian symbolism has not helped the Holy Ghost/Spirit’s public image. Gustave Flaubert’s novelette about the gentle Felicity, the “simple soul” whose story is told in his “Un Coeur Simple “, has been raising smiles from its readers for nearly one hundred and forty years because of the heroine’s confusion, in her last years, of the divine dove with Loulou, her dead stuffed parrot. English author Julian Barnes exploited the Frenchman’s story in his “Flaubert’s Parrot”. Cheap shots, some will say, though Flaubert’s attitude to religion was never caustic nor brutally satirical (unlike that of some militant atheists I know). But the phenomenon points up the problem of making sense of Trinitarian doctrine , beyond the mathematical conundrum. What or Who exactly are they talking about when non-atheists speak of God ? They would rightly accuse me of blasphemy, but it seems to me that the inventors of Christian myth deserve at least a (miraculous ?) medal for creating such a silly way of representing the Godhead. Better to have none at all – like the other monotheisms – rather than give God feathers.