A dear friend of mine is in her final semester of a psychology degree. Somehow Martin Buber came up. The famous work of the Jewish thinker – “I and Thou” – is such a powerful idea from the early 20th century that is resonates in both psychology and theology.
Keith Ward explains in God: a guide for the perplexed:
“The word ‘thou’ in English has a rather peculiar history. In the sixteenth century, when the English Book of Common Prayer was first pieced together, it was the second-person singular personal pronoun. Just as in German and French, and many other languages today, it was used to signify an especially close and intimate relationship with the person to whom you were speaking. For formal occasions, or to people one did not know well, ‘you’ was appropriate. But for members of family and close friends, the correct word to use was ‘thou’.” *
Then something very odd happened to the English language. Everyone simply became ‘you’. No one used ‘Thou’ anymore and it became a very fancy and antiquated way to reference someone.
The problem is that is was still used to refer to God (in the books used by the church) and so:
“before long people thought that ‘thou’ was a special word only to be used for God – God being presumably very archaic – connoting very special reverence and respect. So, whereas the writers of the first Elizabethan prayer book had wanted people to address God in a very intimate, almost informal way, most people who love the prayer book now seem to think that it is important to address God as ‘thou’, because only that gives God appropriate respect. Ironically, those who insist on addressing God as ‘thou’ are doing the very opposite of what the compilers of the prayer book wanted.”
Do you see what happened? Any words that get attached to our conception of God end up getting co-opted, absorbed and hijack by our conception of God.
We try to use words, phrases, pictures and metaphors to re-present the transcendent divine … but those words, phrases and metaphors end up getting codified then solidified then idolized.
In this way, our imagination becomes an image … and eventually becomes an idol.
I have argued this same sort of thing in “God never changes … or does She?” when it comes to masculine pronouns for god vs. thinking of god as a man.
Instead of understanding Jesus’ language as relational – that Jesus calling God
‘Abba’ (some say “Father” but I like John Cobb’s use of “Pappa”) as saying “I relate to God as one relates to a loving Father/Parent” , we codified and solidified that language and now God is ONLY allowed to be called ‘He’ in some circles. Our imagination is then limited by the image which has become an idol.
Jesus and Unicorns
I run into this same thing when it comes to christology. People often confuse the two approaches of ‘from above’ and ‘from below’ with two results of ‘high christology’ and ‘low christology’. This is true of general theology and views of scripture as well.
Those who are convinced that God needs to be as big, as powerful and as all-mighty as possible are often caught in the slightly awkward position of having to stick up for, defend and police the opinions of other on behalf of this almighty being.
So often in these conversations I want to say “ Just because your god could beat up my god doesn’t mean that your conception in is correct.” Look, if we are just going make bigger and badder things up and then call that “High” … then I want a Jesus who rides a unicorn – cries magic teardrops that become diamonds and never lets anyone get sick or die. THAT would be a higher christology.
Why Are You Doing That?
Normally I wouldn’t go after this topic in such a way, but I have noticed that in our ‘culture wars’ there is a disturbing trend. Really good people with really sincere faith will give themselves permission to behave in really aggressive and judgmental ways and when confronted will respond with either “God …” or “The Bible …”.
That is just one way in which I know that we have a problem. Insisting on calling God ‘He’ (or ‘King’ or ‘Father”) is the other.
The way that we imagine – or image – God is so powerful, that the words and phrases that we use to describe our conception get pulled into an orbit which threatens to change their very meaning. The gravitational pull of our language about God is so strong that it will actually warp the words themselves.
May god grant us the kindness and humility to recognize that all of our god-language, signs and symbols are provisional at best and to treat other people kindly and graciously as we walk together in common humanity as I and Thou.
* Keith Ward . God (2013 edition): A Guide for the Perplexed (Kindle edition). $9.99
Elizabeth Johnson. She Who Is. Used for under $10