Revealing Language

Image of portrait of Henrietta Maria and Charles I by Anthony van Dyck

Daddy, mommy, bubby

The adult class I attend is reading a book (The Good and Beautiful God, by James Bryan Smith) together, so I have been doing my homework, dutifully reading the chapters and doing the exercises. The text is designed to encourage us to adopt the narratives Jesus tells about God, in preference to the ones we might have in our heads from who knows where, on the premise that Jesus’ narratives are the ones to go by. In general I have been appreciating this book, albeit critically, and thinking it has good things to say and is worth studying. But this week, the issue of language for addressing God has come up, and I have a bone to pick with the author. Not so much with Jesus, I don’t think — although I am confident Jesus would not mind having this conversation one bit.

The issue is about calling God “Father.” Smith in essence repeats Karl Barth’s argument about revealed language. We ought to call God “Father,” because Jesus did. And we ought to let what Jesus says about God the Father define what “Father” means when we use the word. So “Father” doesn’t essentially mean “the male person who contributed 50% of my DNA” or “the male person, whether or not married to my mother, who was one of my adult role models while I was growing up” or whatever positive or negative personal meaning that word has. “Father” means a familiar, personal entity who is present, pure, powerful, provident, pardoning, and protective. A good “father” (in the ordinary sense) would be all of these things, and so would a good “mother” for that matter. “Father” language isn’t really about gender, according to this author. It is about whatever God has in mind when God chooses a word to use to reveal Godself.

This is an interesting argument, but it seems incomplete to me, for a couple of reasons. One reason is that, when we hear the word “father,” it does not fail to have a “literal” meaning for us, and the literal meaning of “father” — at least in our culture, as in Jesus’ culture — includes the dimension of human gender, and all of the social connotations of that dimension. It includes all the collateral knowledge we have about what fathers do and mothers don’t, what fathers like and dislike and how that is different from what mothers like and dislike, how fathers look and sound and dress and how that is different from how mothers look and sound and dress, and so on and on. In fact, if the word did not carry any such freight, we might have a difficult time saying what the word means. Because for all the sophisticated theories of meaning that have been developed, meaning, at least in the case of nouns, like “father,” still keeps coming back around to what people think a word stands for or points to, and we generally learn that from the way the word is used by the people around us. So to say that “father” shouldn’t make us think of our own fathers seems something like saying “apple” shouldn’t make us think of the red or green fruit we see in the stores about this time of year, and “sun” shouldn’t make us think of the bright light we see in the sky most days. Whether or not it should, it does, and if it didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to talk to our brothers and sisters.

So, that argument ignores, or suppresses, the revelation about us that Biblical language incorporates. Calvin took the view that Biblical language was hugely accommodated to limited human understanding — something like the way baby talk is accommodated to the limitations of babies and young children. One consequence of that position is that, while all human language is inadequate to full revelation of truth about God, some language “for” revelation might work better “as” revelation for us, whoever “we” are, and other language less well, because of the way people use and understand that language. Which means that the language used in the Bible says something about its readers, and how we use the language, and what we are capable of understanding those words to mean, along with whatever it communicates to us about God.

Since we know (people tell me all the time that we know this) that God does not have gender, then theoretically it shouldn’t make an iota of difference whether we call God Father or Mother or Parent. If a good Parent is present, pure, powerful, provident, pardoning, and protective; if that is what “Father” means in the context of Jesus’ prayer; if a good Mother is equally those things; then we should be able to say “Our Mother who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name” etc. with the same ease we have in saying the “Our Father.”

If we can’t (and the persistent resistance to that practice, active and passive, strongly suggests that some of us at least cannot), the question of “why can’t we call God Mother” seems to have much less to do with God than it does with us: why can’t we call God “Mother?” What is it about addressing someone as “Mother” that seems (to some of us, anyway) incompatible with what we think we need to say about God, or have been told to say about God, or have learned to think about God? What is it about the way people use the word “mother” that makes that word seem (to some of us, evidently) inadequate to contain the revelation of God?

More importantly, what revelation about God are we missing out on because of the many limitations imposed by chronic masculine language for God, and by the human reality it reflects? To what human reality is non-inclusive, patriarchal language an accommodation? And what will it take to move past that reality, to one that would be more receptive to something a little less like baby-talk?

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About Ha_Qohelet

Ha_Qohelet is a transliteration of Hebrew definite article plus a feminine participle, all together meaning "the (feminine) one who assembles" or who calls together. Qohelet is the title of one of the books of the Hebrew Scripture, known in English as Ecclesiastes. The Women's Center at LPTS feels the epithet of Qohelet is a fitting one for what we do and are. The Women's Center is, indeed, a caller-together, a caller-to-wisdom, and an assembler -- of people, of ideas, of actions, and ultimately, we hope, of transformations in the world. In this context, Ha_Qohelet is the Director of the Women's Center, and Editor-in-Chief of Wimminwise.

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