>The Simple Way to talk of God
Some things are complicated. Admittedly, this is not always fun or desirable. It is so nice sometimes when things are simple: like There is one God. Some like to say “there is no name under heaven or earth by which men can be saved” .Or as our ancestors said “Hear oh Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one”. Or like our religious cousins say “There is no God but one and this is his prophet”.
And we see that even amongst the Abrahamic faiths, this one simple confession has already made things unimaginably complicated.
I have to admit, I think that it is better if things are realistically reflective of how complicated and complex things really are! I don’t think that it serves anyone when we overly simplify something that is, by necessity, complex. Like when we say ‘pray this little prayer and you will go to heaven’ or that “grace is the free gift of God” without mentioning that the free gift will cost you everything – like a free download that once downloaded unzips itself and re-formats your entire hard drive, replaces your operating system and deletes all your favorite files. ( That, by the way, is what most people refer to as a virus – but that is for another day)
But today is about the Name of God, or should I say the Names of God. This is one of those areas that you do not want to over simplify and that we do a great disservice to by boiling it down to a bare minimum. There is such richness is a study of the multiplicity of Names for God – even just those that are found in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.
Three quick groupings of these:
First, there a number of lists and resources that will show you a whole array of these names. Some will catalogue the Hebrew names for God is Scripture – Jehovah, Elohim, Adoni, Ancient of Days, Jehovah Jireh, etc. Some will detail names for Jesus or titles he inherited in our ‘old’ Testament. These a great photo albums of different snapshots of God’s story.
The only thing to be mindful of is that they are lifted out of a narrative and are thus missing their context that so often gives them their meaning.
Second grouping is Titles that we know well but may not know where they come from. For instance, many people know that Jesus is called both the Son of God and the Son of Man. But it is helpful to ask ‘Is Jesus the only person called the Son of God” and the answer is ‘No’. Many people in the Bible are called Son of God. It was a political term and it turns out that Israel may have borrowed it from Egypt, Babylon or Rome – all of which had it in their records before it shows up in Israel and we know that Israel had contact with these places.
The Son of Man, though is interesting because it is a prophetic title that Jesus borrows from the book of Daniel and other Hebrew writings that are not in our canon. Jesus uses it so many different ways and if you only did a study that focused on that phrase, you would probably learn so much and have such a developed picture of how Christ embraces it’s many facets.
The third grouping is phrases or ideas that are lost in translation. They are concepts that did not come over when the original Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic transitioned to English. It’s like how there are seven Greek words in the New Testament for love , but in the KJV, New American and NIV they all come out simply as ‘love’.
Well, there are all sorts of interesting words left back in the pre-translation texts like for instance ‘Wisdom’ words like Hokma in Hebrew, Sophia in Greek, or how Spirit in Hebrew is Ruach. The interesting thing in these examples, as in many other places, is that these words of feminine. The fact that in the original language used in the texts of scripture has both Spirit and Wisdom not just with feminine words but contain feminine word pictures and concepts.
It may be helpful to recognize that other things have been lost in translation too and some of them contain gender issues. The phrase ‘help mate’ is often used of the relationship of Eve to Adam or of a wife to her husband. The word is ‘paraclete’. This phrase though only occurs one other time in scripture. The other time, it is about God. Holy Spirit is promised to us as a ‘Helper’. That word is a God word and reflects God’s relationship to us: Helper.
So, no – things are not simple. But, if you embrace that complexity, you can actually emerge into a place where there is great clarity and perspective. It won’t be any simpler , but it will more accurately reflective the complicated nature of the reality that we are dealing with.
Say God three times
I got permission to pick out two clips of a conversation between Elizabeth Johnson (author of “She Who Is”) and Tripp Fuller (of Homebrewed Christianity) to help us really appreciate the classic formulation of the Triune God .
We listen to Elizabeth Johnson and take the opportunity and say God’s name 3 times in 3 different ways.
God beyond us
God with us and
God within us
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever— the Spirit of truth … you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.
Dancing with God
One of my favorite pictures of the relationship of the Trinity ( the Triunes Godhead if you prefer) – is found in a word picture that pre-dates the formulation of our New Testament. It is called the Perichoresis (it is popular in the Eastern tradition and dates back before the 4th century but it was not the preferred picture of the Three Fold nature of God for the Roman West and thats why so many of us Protestants have never heard of it) and I have to tell you – it has revolutionized my prayer life, my Bible reading and my view of society.
The term Perechoresis comes from two words: Peri (where we get our word perimeter) and from the same word that we get Choreograph from. So Perichoresis means that dance of God or the movement of God and it is a picture of the relationship that is a little different than the Father sitting on the throne, the Son at his right side and the Holy Spirit doing all of the work. It is not static – it is dynamic and full of motion.
One of things you will run into in early church history is that there are hundreds of ways to picture the Trinity incorrectly. There were so many councils and creeds that tried to address all of the wrong ways to picture this and talk about. It you read a theological dictionary you will find names and titles for all sorts of errors and heresies regarding these formulations. You are not allowed to say that the Son proceeded from the Father or that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and Son. They all have to be equal. The Son was begotten but not made and comes from the same substance as the Father but is not the same person. You can not say that they are 3 substances in one person but you have to be careful with them being one substance in 3 persons. On could go on and on about how complicated and complex this is, but suffice to say that when you are done with the whole exercise… you want to be left with more than a Organizational chart detailing the hierarchy of the Godhead.
That is why I love Perichoresis. It has movement – is sees God as a divine Community – as Relationship in it’s purest and best and that for which all other relationships are but shadows and reflections. It is the fountain from which all our expectations for community flow and the source of our relational expectations.
Here then is how it works:
It is coordinated dance (choreography) around the perimeter. It is each member taking it’s turn to move into that central place and then deferring of defaulting to the others. It is the Father saying “this is my son” then the son saying “I do only that which I receive from my father” and of the spirit “I will send you another who will teach you all things” and Spirit calling back to our memory “everything that Jesus said”.
It is the humility and patience of God to not occupy that central place and to rotate and turn around the others, moving to allow the other a place to come and be central. It is a chance to prefer and find importance in other. I love this picture. It speaks to me. It moves my soul. It inspires me to community and relationship.
It want to take it further, you can go ahead and ask the question. If they are moving around the outside (the perimeter) then what is in the middle?
And that is the question. What is in the middle? If you know me and how I construct these essays – you can probably guess.
It is Sophia. The wisdom of God for humanity is that place. But here is the thing: It is not an empty space. It is actually a pregnant place, for it is the womb. It is Mary saying “may it be unto me as you have said” in daring response to the initiation of God. It is place that the Bride is held. It is not an empty space but a place of possibility and potential. The womb is where the knowledge of God is born. Sophia.
Isn’t that an amazing picture? It is such a gorgeous metaphor for the moving of God. For humble community and dynamic relationship.
So, In closing. I just want encourage you to try something new. That might be researching the Names of God, or the background of just one of the Names.
Or, you might trying what Elizabeth Johnson suggested and try saying God three times each time you invoke the Name in prayer : God who is beyond us – God who is with us – God who is within us.
Or, you might close your eyes and let images of God dance in your head and in your heart as they move and turn and dip and recede in coordinated humility and preference. You may even want to go that extra step and incorporate the picture of the womb, the ministry of Spirit as ‘Helpmate’ , Jesus’ mother heart or God as She.
We end where we began: this is not simple and trying to make it so is dangerous. It is messy and necessarily complicated – just like life and exactly like faith