Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
July 22, 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.
Welcome to the second part of our three part sermon series on the language we use for God. I want to thank Jane for stepping in for me last Sunday and reading the first sermon in the series for me. And I want to apologize to her too. As she said to me after the service last Sunday when we spoke on the phone, that was a very heady sermon. I know, and I know that this whole series is pretty heady. In other words this sermon series is very me. Itís not very Jane, not that she disagrees with the points it makes. In reading it she was definitely giving you me, not herself. So Jane, thank you; and Iím sorry I couldnít be here to give that sermon myself.
In that first sermon in this series I stressed the point that God is and always remains ultimate mystery. Not a mystery we are to solve but an eternal mystery because God, who on the one hand is always present with us, is also and paradoxically always infinitely beyond us and our human conceptions and understandings. I said that the nature of that of which we speak when we speak of God turns out to have consequences for the nature of the language that we use when we speak of God. Those consequences of the nature of God, and specifically of God as transcendent mystery, for the nature of our God talk are the subject of this second sermon in this series.
The human desire, indeed the human need, to speak of God is universal. All human cultures have spoken of God. Perhaps they have spoken of gods rather than God. Perhaps they have spoken of Brahman or the Tao, concepts for ultimate reality that are utterly impersonal and without any human characteristics at all. However theyíve done it, all human cultures have spoken of God. Our does too.
Yet that human desire, that human need to speak of God presents us humans with an enormous dilemma, or at least it does if we have a proper understanding of that of which we speak when we speak of God. God is mystery. God is transcendent. God is other than and beyond the created world in which we live. Thatís one prong of the dilemma. The other is this: We desire to speak of God, yet the only tool we have with which to do it is human language. We wish to speak, but we can speak only in human words. Thatís the other prong of our dilemma because the human language that is the only tool we have with which to speak of God arises within and is part of the created world that God so utterly transcends. Because God transcends creation, and because our language is part of creation, God transcends our language. God is ďtotally otherĒ than creation (to use a phrase from last weekís sermon), and God is totally other than our language.
Let me use an example to illustrate our dilemma when we try to speak of God. Behind the house that was my parentsí in Eugene is a great tree. Itís a tulip tree, and I have always loved that tree. I call it my tree. It has grown from a little sapling that we planted many years ago into a large, magnificent tree today. I can speak with precision and accuracy about that tree. I can speak precisely of its height, the color and shape of its leaves, the circumference of its trunk. With a little more investigation I could describe its roots and measure their length and depth. With more investigation and a microscope to aid my observation I could describe my treeís cellular structure. Well maybe I couldnít. I flunked plants in high school, but somebody could. These and many more things about my tree I can observe with my human senses and describe most adequately using human language. There is nothing about my tree and nothing about human language that means my language cannot adequately describe my tree. It can.
It is not so with God. God and human language are of essentially different natures. Human language is created, God is not created. Human language is finite, God is infinite. Human language is a human creation, God (our friendly local atheists to the contrary notwithstanding) is not a human creation. Human language arises out of and is part of human life within creation. God is beyond creation. Human language is a tool humans have the capacity to create and have created to facilitate their existence within creation. God creates creation, is immanent in it, but ultimately remains beyond it and is different from it.
So weíre left with a big question: If God is so transcendent of and different from our created human existence with its human language, and if human language is all we have with which to speak of God, how can we speak of God at all? Isnít our language, which is the only tool we have, completely inadequate for the task of speaking of God?
The answer, or at least the beginning of an answer, to that question is that indeed we cannot speak of God, indeed our language is completely inadequate for speaking of God, if we understand the statements we make about God to be the same kind of statements that I can make about my tree. That is, we cannot speak of God, and our language is completely inadequate to speak of God, if we understand our statements about God literally, that is, if we understand them to be stating facts about God the same way my statements about my tree state facts about that tree. If we understand our statements about God that way we are saying that God and my tree are on the same order of existence, that they exist on the same level of creation and we can talk about them the same way. In other words, when we understand our statements about God literally, when we understand them to be stating facts about God, we bring God down to the level of my tree. In other words, we make God a thing. Yet of course God is not a thing. Things are created. There was a time when they were not. God is not created. There never was a time when God was not. We cannot make literal, factual statements about God with our human language without making God less than God.
So is there no legitimate way we can make statements about God at all? Well yes, actually, there is a legitimate way we can make statements about God. We can make legitimate statements about God in our human language without making God less than God if we understand our language about God not literally, that is, not factually, but symbolically.
OK, our language about God has to be symbolic. Our words for God are symbols, but whatís a symbol? For our purposes here a symbol is a word. It can also be an object, like the cross, but for now weíll consider a symbol to be a word. A symbol is a word that isnít taken literally but that points beyond itself to something else, something beyond itself, something transcendent, something to which the symbol can connect us but that it cannot capture, define, or fully and accurately encompass.1
Again, perhaps, an example will help. One of the most common words for God in the Christian tradition is Father. Christians call God Father all the timeóOur Father, who art in heaven; Heavenly Father; the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and so on. When we call God Father we are probably already using the word symbolically even perhaps without knowing it. You can see the symbolic nature of the word Father for God if you will consider all of the ways that God is not your father. God didnít beget you biologically, a human male did. God didnít raise you in any human sense. Human beings did; and probably, although not necessarily, one of those people was a man. Ancient Israel may have thought of the god Yahweh as a male person of sorts, but I doubt that any of us really thinks God is a male person or anything much like a male person. We call God Father all the time, but we can recognize the limitations of that word for God. There are lots of ways in which God is not father.
So is it inappropriate to call God Father? No, calling God Father is perfectly appropriate as long as we recognize the symbolic nature of the word father when we apply it to God. Calling God Father is appropriate if, as many of us have, we have experienced God as present in our lives in a way that we experience as fatherly. There is nothing wrong with calling God Father if you also recognize that God isnít literally father but is symbolically father. Father doesnít pin God down. Father isnít Godís essence. God as Father is a symbol not a fact. The word father can point to something about God. It may truly express something about our experience of God. In that sense calling God Father may be true, but it is also necessarily false. God may be like a father to you, but at the same time God is not a father to you. Thatís how you know that the word Father as applied to God is a symbol not a fact.
It cannot be otherwise. Our words for God must be symbols not facts because God transcends our words absolutely. If God did not transcend our words God would not truly be God. God would be just another fact, and God is surely not just another fact.
Now, in preparation for next weekís final sermon in this series, I invite you to consider briefly what the symbolic nature of our language for God means for the Christian traditionís historic exclusive use of male images for God. Is God male? No, God transcends such biological distinctions as male and female. Do our male images for God, like Father, define, capture, or fully characterize God? No, God transcends those images absolutely. So if we may experience God as Father but God is also not Father, are male images like Father the only appropriate images for God? Stay tuned.
1For a fuller discussion of symbols see my book Liberating Christianity, Chapter 3.