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?


Last Week of Class

A class for women at Manzanar, 1942, by Dorothea Lange

A class for women at Manzanar, 1942, by Dorothea Lange

Yesterday began the last week of classes, spring semester 2009, here at Louisville Seminary.

People here observe this with a mixture of relief, panic (“I have two papers to write tonight!”), regret (“Where did this semester go?), anticipation — especially for those students who are looking forward to accepting, or receiving, calls. We noted that yesterday’s Gender and Ministry committee meeting closed the year, with finality: that group of people will not assemble again for that purpose, as student representatives move on to other assignments or away from the Seminary entirely, as faculty representatives shift to other committees, as our Student Coordinator Debra Trevino moves on to work with a congregation. Such final scenes will be played out over and over again across the campus, as first one and then another class meets for the last time.

The rhythm of the academic year may not uniquely focus attention on the passage of time — consider the cycles of the agrarian year, and the related but different cycles of the liturgical calendar. But the academic rhythm adds to that pattern the uniqueness of classes: groups of individuals who assemble, negotiate mutual expectations and arrangements, pursue a common course for a time, in the process making one another’s deeper or more superficial acquaintance, gaining insight and appreciation. Classmates come to stand inevitably in one another’s debt, as all will become for each, for ever afterwards, part of that past which serves as ground for every present to come.

None of us springs fully formed, like Athena, from the Godhead. Not even Jesus, who as our partner in the human condition for profound and even now not fully fathomed reasons, like us became a specific, concrete someone, identical to no one else, through specific, concrete, and finite interaction with concrete individual others. Classmates learn more than the content of specific subject matters. We learn, unavoidably, from one another, something about living with others as ourselves. We could say, and not say too much, that the selves we become owe something to our classmates. And the selves our classmates become owe something to us.

Of course, our participation in classes doesn’t end with school, nor did it begin there. Sessions have classes; congregations make up complex classes; perhaps even our neighbors are our classmates, though that might be stretching the point. So as we reflect on classes, in the light of classes here reaching their stopping points and parting of ways, we hope we do so as generous classmates, made wiser and happier by the members of our various classes, who have themselves become wiser and happier thanks to us.

Event Space

Altar of Mary Magdalene in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Altar of Mary Magdalene in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

It is the season to reserve space at LPTS. Campus organ-izers and -izations have until the end of May to stake claims to the various spaces on campus for various events to be held during calendar year 2010. Once that date is past, the space may be reserved by off-campus groups or others wanting to use the spaces on campus for other purposes — like the chapel for weddings, or the elegant rooms in Gardencourt for receptions. If appropriate reservations are not made by the deadline, event planners may find that someone else has already begun to fill the space with their own dreams and plans.

The deadline forces us to think well ahead about the program of the Women’s Center — what we’ll be doing a year from now, or 18 months from now. And of course, we know some of those things. We know we will be thinking about another V-Week, and about another Transgender Day of Remembrance, and about another Katie Geneva Cannon Lecture (this time, thinking about it for a month in the fall of 2010, rather than the spring). We know some of those things, even though we don’t know everything that will arise, the various unexpected opportunities, folks who will be passing through and ask for time to share with the community, and so on. We just hope and pray that the space for whatever will arise will be open when the time comes.

Thinking about space just now, as spring is budding and blooming all over our area, has a kind of rightness to it. We set aside the space, make the space, a time on the calendar and a place for something to happen, right at the beginning of an event; not much else happens before we establish that detail, make sure our plans have a place to go.

Sometimes, it will happen that an event affects all the space around it. If someone reserves Hundley Hall, it affects everything on the first floor of Gardencourt. If something is already planned for the Winn Center lounge, it might wreck some plans for the McAtee Dining Rooms before they even get off the ground.

This has me thinking about the spatial dimension of Easter. We churchgoers and Bible readers and Christians have probably heard a fair amount about “the empty tomb” over the past week or so. Jesus’ empty tomb was the first phenomenon that signalled resurrection, however the various theologians among us want to understand resurrection. The first witnesses to resurrection — famously women, famously thought by the other disciples to be talking trash (and can we not hear Mary Magdalene saying “You know, when I said exactly the same thing, no one listened, and now when one of the guys says it . . .”) — were witnesses to empty space that was supposed to have been full, open space that was supposed to have been closed off.

From the space and events perspective, it’s as if an event that had been announced, dooming every other nascent plan, blocking every other possibility, pre-empting the entire space of life, had been suddenly and definitively cancelled, and all that space was released, opened up, for something else to take place, for new events to happen into.

That’s kind of thing that makes a person reserving space say “Thank God!” breathe a sigh of relief, . . . and begin working out what we’re going to do now.

Worship in the Words of the Tradition II

The tradition has many words. As we noted here yesterday, and in Caldwell Chapel on Thursday, February 12, some of those words are beloved of many, sanctified by long use in the church, and at the same time words that make Christian worship damaging.

This is about language. Language that is, perhaps, easy to use. Language that, perhaps, most of us barely even notice, barely even think about. Language that, if we do think about it — if it is, for instance, brought to our attention by someone’s complaint or lament — we might barely be able to take seriously. (“Oh, that? But that’s just . . .” or “Seriously, it’s no big deal!”) Language that comes to our minds and mouths quickly, almost without having to think about it, because we have used this language so long, and have thought the thoughts that travel with this language so long.

Words (and thoughts) like:

Kyrie eleison

    (“Oh, come on! It’s just THE KYRIE, for Jesus Christ’s — or Pete’s — sake. You can’t seriously have a problem with that. Try not to think of it as “Lord,” as if it had all kinds of hierarchical, kyriarchical, patriarchal baggage, just think of it as “God”. Don’t make a big deal out of this.)

. . . All to Him I freely give;
I will ever love and trust Him,
in His presence daily live.

    (It’s just a song. Lots of people love this song. It’s about surrender — what, you don’t want to surrender everything to Jesus? Nobody means self-esteem, desire for freedom, the dignity owing to a human being that someone in an abusive relationship might be trying to convince you to deny you even have a right to. Surrender bad things, selfish things . . . bad selfish things . . . OK, it says “Him”, but it doesn’t mean your husband or your father, it means Jesus, just try not think of Jesus in the same way as that husbandfatherpastor . . . Jesus is different, Jesus is better than that . . . you can do it! Don’t make a big deal out of this!)

. . . our Lord Jesus Christ . . .

    (Yes, “Lord” is male language, master of slaves, leader of armies, “husband” — in olden days — but look, here it’s just a formula, it doesn’t mean that, no one means anything by it, it’s just language, you have to call Jesus something, come on, don’t make a big deal out of this!)

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise . . .

    (Down, girl! Whoever put this liturgy together probably couldn’t find a copy of the current Presbyterian Hymnal, where this allegedly ‘generic’ use of ‘man’ to designate ‘humanity’, obscuring or perhaps even denying the presence of women in that humanity, has been changed to the inclusive “vain, empty praise”. Why can’t you just cut him — or her! — some slack? What ever happened to forgiveness? Grace? This is such a little thing — don’t make a big deal out of it . . .)

. . . my sister death . . .
how not hear her wise advice?

    (See, there’s some feminine language in here, too. Yes, “death,” but in context this is positive, see, wise . . . plus, it’s from a traditional prayer. By St. Francis. Saint Francis. You don’t seriously have a problem with Saint Francis, do you? It’s not really linking women with death, deadliness, bringing death into the world . . . Eve . . . cut it out, don’t make a big deal out of this.)

“Turn to the Lord your God again.” . . .
Turn to us, Lord God, . . .

    (Almost done now. You know the drill. Swallow, suck it up, say “amen,” just, you know, what were you thinking, you know, you did basically ask for it, coming to church, and on Ash Wednesday, of all days, what were you expecting . . . you can’t really make a big deal out of this, you know that, right? Because you are SO missing the big picture, the main point, and all the GOOD PARTS of the service, why don’t you pay attention to that, why do you have to be so negative, why do you have to get so angry, what is wrong with you?)

So how many “no big deals” does it take to make a big deal?

Using inclusive language for humanity is an official policy of Caldwell Chapel worship for a reason.

We have the conversations we’ve had with people about avoiding “Lord Lord” language for a reason, too. Some of those we’ve even had here. (Here’s one. Here’s another.)

Yes, this is about language. This is about language because, protestations to the contrary, language means something. And if it really doesn’t mean anything, then why use it in the first place?

During this Lent, maybe we could all actually surrender the practice of calling Jesus Lord, as if the very best, the greatest, the most honorific and the only thing we can think of to call Jesus is Master of slaves, Owner of property, Leader of feudal armies, Husband, Sir, Big Man.

Jesus. The Word and Wisdom and Lamb of God, the Bread of Heaven, the Living Water, the Christ, Savior, Redeemer, Teacher, Mediator, Alpha and Omega, Lily of the Valley, Rose of Sharon, Morning Star, Author and Finisher of our faith, . . .

Even though all of that, too, is only, you know, language.

[The Order of Service for Caldwell Chapel Worship, Wednesday, February 25, 2009]

Edwards Presler Lectures Celebrated with Substance

Edwards-Presler Lectures gave us much to take to heart

Edwards-Presler Lectures gave us much to take to heart

I realize now (that it’s been days) that I won’t have time to say all I can think of to say about the remarkable Edwards and Presler lectures that it was our privilege to attend last week. So instead, I’ll say just 5 reasons I thought of so much to say in the first place:

1) Alice Winters’ exegesis of the goel — the social role in ancient Israelite society that had special responsibility for standing up in a substantive way for the poor, weak, marginal, perishig members of the clan — in essence, making sure that “no one gets rich from the misery of others.” Her reminder that the word “redeemer” — the familiar translation of that Hebrew word — is deeply embedded in this concrete, substantive, real-world help that is solidarity context. Her application of that insight to our approach to mission — and to Jesus’ approach.

2) Eileen Lindner’s opening statement, that the Hebrew Bible is unambiguous about this much, that “piety without compassion and justice for the poor is an abomination to Israel’s God.” I only hope that when it comes time to make lists of abominations, that one always heads the list.

3) And Lindner’s story about her son wondering, suspiciously, whether if he shared a bottle of lemonade he would “catch your dreams.” Oh, yes — I wish my daughter would catch my dreams. And I wish I would catch these women’s dreams.

4) Another statement, this time by Eileen Lindner about George Edwards, namesake along with Jean Edwards of the Edwards lecture: “He has always known that scholarship is the means; the goal is faithfulness.” That’s another dream I’d like to catch.

5) These illuminating and stirring lectures, both given by women who are justly recognized in the areas of evangelism and mission as women of worth, truly constituted a celebration of the gifts and achievements of women in the church and the world. The Women’s Center can only say amen! to that.