Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today


February 2012

God as She-He-They

Originally posted at Homebrewed Christianity as “She Who is Not”

Earlier this week I had a post about language and God talk that incorporated C.S. Lewis’ poem “A Footnote on All Prayers”.  Part of what came out of that was an exchange with J.W. about pronouns, the Bible, and Inspiration. I wanted to transfer some of that over here (I have edited it for clarity) in order to open up the conversation to more people.

J.W.: So, what does your god look like? And how is that look any different from Piper’s or Driscoll’s?

Thanks for asking! Actually there is quite a substantial difference. Let me point out just a couple of things to start:
A) I don’t believe that language about God is univocal (as I have said). SO we begin in humility understanding that all our words, metaphors and concepts are OUR best attempt.
B) I believe that langue (since it is not univocal) functions relationally. When Jesus uses ‘Father’ language, he is talking about the WAY in which relates to a father. Not that God’s ontological being is Father in an exacting and representative way. It is an expressive use of language. That is the nature of language.
C) The way that Scripture is expressed is historic. I believe that the Bible is Inspired by Holy Spirit. That means that Holy Spirit was at work in the authors and ultimately in those who collected and validated the canon. (I confess this by faith). Those authors were historically situated and particularly located. They expressed their thoughts in their best language in their best frameworks. We see that historical locatedness and account for it when we engage their writings.
D) Whether you call it ‘original sin’ (I don’t) or ‘human nature’ or (my favorite) relational brokeness and conflicting biological impulses … humans have a problem. We are not 100% whole. Something is wrong (we don’t even do the good we WANT to do). That means that in every epoch and era there are things in place that are not perfect. Those show up in scripture – since it is a snap shot of its environment. The Bible is fully human (and I believe fully divine in a Process sense) but it is not ABSENT of humanity. It is full of humanity.
So If you take just those 4 things in contrast to Piper and Driscoll, then my God talk is:

  • in Humility not certainty or pushy
  • Relational not static or exacting
  • Historical not trans-historic
  • Human not un-human

Does that help? SO that is my starting point. From there I diverge wildly from the other two.

Well, first of all, thanks for a response.
Second, no offense, but you use an awful lot of words to not say too much. Or, to say the same thing over and over while denying that you are saying one thing, yet actually affirming another. Since I don’t have any real idea what you believe Piper and Driscoll believe, I still don’t know that you are painting a different god or not.
You start out saying that all expressions of God are only a best attempt, but then you claim to believe the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. So, which is it? Our best attempt, or Holy Spirit inspired? See the problem there. It’s either one or the other, can’t be both.
Certainly the Bible is written situationally. God could have inspired men to write it so it only made sense at one point in the entire course of time, or He could have inspired it so that it meant the same thing from beginning to end, from the beginning of time to the end of time. And written so that ordinary people could figure it out with a little help from His Holy Spirit. Which is what I believe. You seem to believe that only post-modern thought with a lot of help from certain philosophers can figure out this whole humility, relation, human thing. Sorry, way too many creeks have flowed over their banks throughout history for me to believe that only recently have we been smart enough to figure this whole mess out.
God (Holy Spirit) inspired the whole Bible. He could have very easily caused His writers to use words that wouldn’t mean anything to their (at the time, current) readers, but would only matter eons later. IF that is what He intended.
Again, you haven’t showed me anything but dichotomies, and nothing of substance that disproves anything Piper et al believe-which I still don’t know what you believe they believe.

1) I did use a lot of words, but it was to say quite a bit. Unfortunately it was not what you were looking for so you think I didn’t say much. I assure you that I say quite enough in my 300 words to get in a lot of trouble in many circles!
2) You are 100% wrong that “It’s either one or the other, can’t be both.” Inspiration is not the OVERriding of human intent – it is the filling UP and expanding of human intent. Inspiration does not make something inhuman. You are thinking of something else not inspiration. Then you accuse me of dichotomies? Weird. I am talking about a participatory-relational model that transcends either/or thinking. You must be confused.
3) Here is an example of the difference (which you apparently were not able to pick up on): It is equally a valid to call god She as it is to call god He. Because in the end, god is neither. Those are pronouns that stand in for their antecedent but which do not entirely explain god or contain god’s ontological reality. God did not give Christianity a masculine feel. We did. God is God that is beyond our biological categorizations and anatomical classification. God is not defined by those – we simply conceptualize God and these terms and portray those conceptions in our language.
This is the nature of language. It is symbolic – analogical – and metaphorical.  That does not mean that we are not saying anything when we talk about God. We are. It does not mean that there is no inspiration. There is. Those are not mutually exclusive.
To quote Elizabeth Johnson in She Who Is :

Words about God are cultural creatures, intwined with the mores and adventures of the faith community that uses them. As cultures shift, so too does the specificity of God-talk.

To call God She is just as accurate and as inaccurate as calling God ‘he’.



May your Kingdom Come … to an end

I might be done with kingdom language – not the dynamic of God’s power or God’s interaction with the world – just the word ‘kingdom’ and its imperial implications. It comes with too much baggage, it is so antiquated, and it is masculine in the way that is unhelpful.*
Here are three reasons that we have permission to move on if we were so inclined:

  • Jesus didn’t use the word.

It might seem simplistic but Jesus didn’t speak English and there is nothing magical about the English word ‘kingdom’. The New Testament uses the phrase Basileia Theou. Maybe we should just go back to that. We keep words like ‘koinonia’ and ‘selah’ in their original form so maybe we could just say when Jesus did and let it go untranslated. Then people would have to reconstruct what the concept means without importing all of their preconceived impressions.

  • The age of kings is over.

I can not believe the hysteria that occurred around the ‘royal wedding’ of Prince William to Kate Middleton – especially by Americans. Just the name the House of Commons makes me wince. I am so glad that the Age of Kings is over. Divine Right would be laughable to me … if I didn’t know how much sway it held for so long. Regardless, those days are over and maybe it is time to update our language about God’s ways as well.

  • The power of pronouns.

Even those who acknowledge that the nature of language is symbolic and metaphorical – even those who recognize that God language is not univocal – can get thrown off if one refers to God as ‘She’.  Even those who know that it is only a pronoun that functions as a place holder want to be careful about the antecedent to the pronoun.  This might be a limitation for a move toward a counter-Queendom, a more inclusive Kin-dom or a non-authoritarian Common/wealth.

There will be some obstacle to overcome.
Number one among them will that ‘it is in the Bible’. Let me say two things:
A) I love that it is in the Bible. It was powerful imagery for its day and it says something really important about God.
B) The authors of scripture conceptualized of God’s work in a way that was relevant to their time. Maybe we should as well.

Another problem I see is Christmas pageants. What will be do when we quote passages like Isaiah 9:7 which get translated into english as “His kingdom will have no end”. But I think it would be fine to have passages like this along side the shepherds and the manger (both are virtual artifacts of an agrarian society)  – as long as it was not our primary (or only) way of articulating and conceptualizing the work of God in the world.

One last thing to suggest: Jesus was in a context that was dominated by Empire. He positioned his vision and language in contrast/opposition to it. But is that our predominant contemporary element? I would suggest that in a venue of Global Capitalism  it may be more appropriate and powerful to speak of the Economy of God.

* I always have to clarify that as a man, I am not anti-masculine. I really like being a man – it’s just that only using masculine terms may have been helpful for clarity when Genesis 1-3 was written, it has become unclear and unhelpful. The hegemonic patriarchy of religious language is pitiful to hold onto and especially when it is done in a univocal way.

Language, God Talk, and Prayer

originally posted at Homebrewed Christianity as “Horse Gods”

I never struggle to believe in God. I believe in the deep core of my being. I have faith in my bones. I breath this stuff. I am filled with Holy Spirit and that gives purpose to my day and direction to my life.  I never doubt the reality of the Christian faith … until I listen to a conservative like John Piper or Marc Driscoll talk. Then, it is all too apparent to me that we are (at least partially) projecting our greatest hopes and dreams onto the screen of the heavens. We are outsourcing our fears and evils onto a cosmic bad guy called the devil. We have created a galactic father figure in the sky (paging Dr. Freud).

It is so clear when Piper talks that it makes me want to retreat into the post-liberal work of George Lindbeck!  

Xenophanes is famed to have said:

“If oxen and horses and lions had hands and were able to draw with their hands and do the same things as men, horses would draw the shapes of gods to look like horses and oxen would draw them to look like oxen, and each would make the gods bodies have the same shape as they themselves had.”

It gets boiled down to “If horses had gods – they would look like horses.”

Most days I can stave that off. I can avoid the haunting suspicion and nagging doubt … but what Piper does is create a God in his own image – there is no other way to say it – it is idolatry.

So what? you may ask. Why even bother with it?  Because, I believe that there really is a God.

C.S. Lewis wrote a poem one time called “a footnote to all prayers” (it references Pheidias who was  a legendary statue maker in the ancient world)

Footnote to All Prayers
He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring Thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshipping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskilfully, beyond desert;
And all men are idolators, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.
Take not, O Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in thy great
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.

This is why we must acknowledge what it is we are doing when we pray, when we preach, and when we practice. We are doing the best we can with words, symbols, sounds and images. But if those images are solidified and codified past their point of original artistry, mysticism and metaphor – then it becomes something deadly to the soul and dangerous to the one seeking the real and living God revealed in Christ.

Bo’s Blogs – 1st week of February 2012

Last week was the big Emergent Village theological conversation that I had the pleasure of  helping to organize. It was a wonderful event and this week I put some time into catching up on blog stuff.

Over at Ethnic Space, I started into 3 part series. Part 1 dealt with Pipelines and Straight lines

What really concerns me is that we don’t even see the straight lines. It never even dawns on us that they don’t exist. They occur nowhere in nature. They are imposed upon the land and laid over the land. They don’t come from the terrain and are not in partnership with the place.
And yet we never see them. The western mind sees what-is and assumes its giveness as a self validating presence.

Part 2 examine the Two Trolls that guard the bridge to a new way. It starts in 1421 when the Chinese land on the Pacific coast of N. America and ends by looking at Descartes’ nipples and belly buttons.

In response to Rachel Held-Evans’ call for men to address this ideas of ‘masculine Christianity’ I offered Bananas, Bullies, and the Bible: why you can’t start in the middle.

Like Ray Comfort and his banana, John Piper ends up making the opposite point than he wanted to! Comfort intended to exalt the original design but instead highlighted human cultivation, influence and adaption. Piper desired to show how God has made us but instead showed how we have made God.

I also look at the problem of Preaching for Happiness.  I start by quickly outlining the 3 predominant christianities in Canada and the US

  • Prophetic Christianity – critiquing the empire
  • Therapeutic Christianity – chaplains to the empire
  • Messianic Christianity – escaping everything (including the empire) through utopian visions

and then examine the amazing flowchart of happiness that I found.

In the middle I say “If the point of the gospel was to make people happy then this progression would be the best and most helpful thing that has ever been invented.
But, and this is a big butt, if the point of the gospel is anything other than making people happy, then this kind of formulaic thinking is the most distracting thing in the world.”

Around here we continued the conversation about the Wesleyan Quadrilateral of reason, experience, scripture and tradition. I think that the quad has a place in the 21st century but might need a little tweaking.

So, that is some of what I have been up to this week. I had a lot of catching up to do after the conference – a lot of ideas that had been building up.  I hope that you will jump in and join the conversation! See you next week.

Clarifying the Quad

a quick follow up to the post from last week
– both of which were also posted at Homebrewed

 I wanted to thank everyone who gave feedback on the Four Locations of Theology in the 21st century post from earlier this week. I appreciate the comments here, on facebook, and the emails.  It has given me a lot to think about and I wanted to clarify three themes that have emerged.

Three clarifications:

  • Reason seems to be the suspicious quadrant. Every time I bring up quadrilateral, more than half of the conversation will be centered on reason. This week was no exception. Reason draws the most concern – which is funny to me because tradition is the one that I find most suspect.

Here is the thing I would want to clarify: the other 3 themes of Scripture, Tradition and Experience all have reason woven into them. Those who wrote the scriptures, those who established the tradition and even our won experience are all saturated with reason. It is inescapable. The scriptures did not fall from the sky! They passed through the author’s minds and were processed with reason. Same with tradition. The creeds were not divined in some sort of supernatural ceremony. The were constructed and reasoned. Our experiences are interpreted utilizing our filters, frameworks and lenses.

 It seems important then to clarify that those three are not independent of reason but are dynamically intertwined with it. It would be useless to take out reason (as some have suggested) because it interlinked and inescapable.

  •  It may be that the quad needs something else. Some suggested replacing one of the 4 elements with an alternative. My favorite idea came from my friend Raphael who said

 “I suggest we add a fifth source for the practice of theology in the 21st century: Imagination!”

Admittedly, it would no longer be a quad! but I think that the tradeoff is that you would get adventure and zest incorporated and not just a static, conserving, or historical product.

  • There are no guarantees. Even if we could all agree to utilize the quad for the theological endeavor, there is no guarantee that we would all come up with some thing or come out with the same conclusions. This seems to be a major concern – that we can not ensure the outcome of such an endeavor.

I am surprised at the conserving nature of such mentalities! People are ok to ‘go on the journey’ as long as we predictably end up basically where we started.
Think all you want. Explore new thoughts and incorporate science … just don’t stray too far from the foundations of antiquity!  Integrate new realities and account for ongoing historical developments … just make sure that you end up with the same thing we started with.

I have not overstated this hesitancy and resistance. But the reality is that there are no guarantees. You may start out an Evangelical and end up being an Emergent type working in a Mainline church with Process theology as your main conversation partner!  (for instance)

 In summary:

  1. You can’t get rid of reason, it is already present in the other three. Scripture, Tradition and Experience are inextricably laced with it.
  2. The quad may need a little something extra. The 21st century may require some zest, adventure and imagination
  3. There are no guarantees. While we want to honor the historical expression and provide continuity with the trajectory … it might look a little different and think a little different than it did in the 3rd or 17th century.

Thanks for all your feedback, thoughts, and concerns. I appreciate the conversation.

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