Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
July 15, 2012


Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

There is a question that I’ve wanted to talk to you about for a long time, that I’ve wanted to preach about and not only to discuss in an adult ed. group. It is the question of our language for God. Now, I know that “our language for God” probably doesn’t sound like a question to you. After all, we speak of God all the time without worrying much about the nature of the language we use. But trust me on this one, it’s a question. It’s a question for two primary reasons. The first is the way in which Christians always have and still do understand the words we use for God literally. The second is the tragic consequences of the Christian tradition’s historic exclusive use of male titles and images for God. I am convinced that both of these aspects of traditional Christian God talk need to be deconstructed and replaced. So I am going to preach a three part sermon series, beginning today, on the question of our language for God.

In this sermon series I want first to share with you some thoughts on the nature of God. God is after all what we’re talking about when we speak of God. God, whatever God means, is the object of our God talk, and it turns out that a proper understanding of what we mean when we say God determines how we must understand the nature of our God language. Then, in the second part of this series next week I will address the question of what a proper understanding of the nature of that of which we speak when we speak of God means for a proper understanding of the nature of the language we use when we speak of God. Finally, in the third part of this series in two weeks, I will turn to the question of the exclusively male language that our tradition has used for God and suggest why we must change that usage to include female images. I will suggest some appropriate female images for God that we can then start using.

To begin: Of what do we speak when we speak of God? A simpler if less theologically precise way of putting that question is Who or What is God? Philosophers and theologians have grappled with that question for millennia. They’ve give lots of different answers. Aristotle called God “the uncaused cause.” For the ancient Israelites God had a name—Yahweh. For Hindus God is the ultimate oneness of all being, far beyond anything that can be named. For Jesus God was Abba, Father. For the Christians of the Ecumenical Councils from the fourth century CE on God was the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, One God in Three Persons. For Muslims God is Allah, which isn’t actually a name but a contraction of Arabic words that mean “the God.” For theologians of the High Middle Ages in Europe God was that greater than which nothing can be imagined. For us today God is mostly just God, or the word God with some other word that names some attribute or characteristic of God—God the Father, the Almighty, the Creator, etc. Islam actually has 99 names for God of this sort. One of the most commonly used is Allah the Most Merciful. Actually, Islam has 100 such names for God, but only the camel knows the 100th. That’s why camels look so smug and superior. Theologians often resort to abstractions when speaking of God. In the twentieth century God became ultimate concern, being itself, and the ground of being. Theologians speak of the ultimate, the absolute, the infinite. Or they use words that point to God as something beyond the physical—the spiritual or the numinous, or the transcendent for example.

Pretty obviously God is a difficult concept for us humans to get a handle on. There is one thing about God, however, that most of these attempts to get a handle on God have in common. They all point in one way or another to God as other. To God as different. To God as beyond that which we normally perceive. Indeed, one famous definition of God from the twentieth century is “totally other,” although of course theologians insist on saying it in Latin, as if that added anything. That, I think, is one thing that we can say about God with confidence. God is other. God is different.

In the end, when we try to speak of God, we are left with one abiding truth, one abiding aspect of God that remains forever. God is mystery. God is ultimate mystery. Not the kind of mystery Agatha Christie wrote. Not the kind of mystery that we are to try to figure out but a mystery that we humans can never solve. A mystery that we should never try to resolve. A mystery that we are to live with and within, not a puzzle to be figured out with a triumphant Ta Da at our great mental achievement.

God as mystery isn’t a new concept. We have always somehow dimly perceived that God is ultimately beyond us. In the Bible, for example, Isaiah has God say “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” Isaiah 55:8 Yet we have always had reservations about God as pure mystery. As we have sensed the ultimate unknowability of God we have nonetheless spoken a great deal about God. We have named God. We have spoken of God’s will and God’s grace. We claim to know things about God even as we acknowledge the God is ultimately unknowable. What’s up with that? Are we stupid? Are we nuts to hold to two things both as true when both of them cannot be true?

Well no, we’re neither stupid nor nuts when we do that. Rather, we are holding onto both sides of a paradox. A paradox is when two things that cannot both be true are both true. God is ultimate paradox. God is known and unknowable. God is transcendent and immanent. God is personal and beyond all the limitations of personhood. It’s not possible for God to be all of those things at once. It’s not possible, it’s just true. God is paradox because paradox preserves the ultimate mystery of God. Paradox points precisely to the way that God is totally other, beyond the bounds of our usual human knowing.

And you may hear the truth that God is ultimately mystery as bad news. You may well be asking: If God is so mysterious, so unknowable, what use is God to me? It’s a legitimate question, but I think that God as ultimate mystery is actually very good news. It’s very good news because anything that wasn’t ultimate mystery couldn’t truly be God. Elizabeth Johnson addresses this truth by saying that rather than signify divine absence, God’s unknowability “fills the world to its depths and then overflows….” (From The Quest for the Living God.) God as mystery means that God is truly God. Anything that we could finally know, could accurately name, could precisely define could not truly be God. That’s because anything that we can know, name, and define has limits. It has boundaries that mark it off from everything that it is not. Yet as the Absolute, the Infinite, the Transcendent, God has no limits. God has no boundaries. God’s lack of boundaries and limits, God’s ultimate unknowability, means that God is not something less than God. That we can in some sense imagine a reality without limits, a reality that we experience but which we can never pin down with our human words and concepts means that we can, however dimly, imagine that which is truly God. The good news of God as mystery is that we can imagine and connect with a reality that is not less than God, that is indeed God.

The first step then in speaking rightly of God is precisely to realize that whatever we say about God cannot contain the fullness of God. God transcends our words and our ideas absolutely, and that truth has profound consequences for the nature of our language about God. To give you just a hint of where this is going, if our language cannot capture or even truly name God, then God is not male. Which means that if male metaphors or symbols for God, like Father for example, are appropriate, and they are, female metaphors or symbols for God, like Mother for example, are also appropriate. More about the consequences of God as mystery for our language about God is the subject of next week’s sermon. Stay tuned.