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When God Is Too Powerful

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.Hand_ofGod2

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.

Suggested Reading: 

* Keith Ward . God (2013 edition): A Guide for the Perplexed (Kindle edition). $9.99

Elizabeth Johnson. She Who Is.  Used for under $10

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?

Me:
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.

J.W.
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.

Me:
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’.

 

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